Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Santa Claus – Christian Saint or Pagan Satan?

 

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Santa Claus is “the dominate fictional character in our world. Neither Micky Mouse nor Sherlock Holmes, Ronald McDonald nor Harry Potter wields a fraction of the influence that Santa does… His image is recognized and loved all around the planet,” Dr. Gerry Bowler, history professor at the University of Manitoba, writes in his book Santa Claus: A Biography.

In our last GFTM article, Keeping the Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of the Battle Over December 25th, we looked at what Dr. Bowler documents so well in another one of his books, Christmas in the Crosshairs. As we saw, many of the modern debates about Christmas have been going on since the beginning, including whether the celebration of Christ’s birth has been too heavily influenced by pagan folk customs. 

Of course, one can’t enter into these debates without the jolly fat man being considered either.

Where it’s difficult to trace when exactly and to what extent many of these pagan folk traditions entered the Christian celebration of Christmas, historic evidence shows us this happened after 300 AD over a period of centuries and varied from place to place as Christianity spread far and wide. (For more details, see the previous article.)

Gift-giving goes way back to the pagan festivals Christmas eventually replaced, and there is a “long association between Christmas and gift-giving” that was “long criticized by the church” for materialism and “lingering paganism.” But the popularity of these customs among the everyday people won out, and eventually the church Christianized them. Gift-giving for Christmas was linked by the church with charity to the poor and the bringing of gifts to the newborn Jesus.

Yet, the gift-giving Saint Nicholas didn’t appear until the 12th Century.

SAINT NICHOLAS, SUPER HERO SAINT

Traditions existed of gifts being delivered to children by various miraculous saints on the eves of their holy days: Saint Barbara, Saint Martin, Saint Lucia, the Wise Men, and others.

But Saint Nicholas, by far, was the most popular.

By 1,100 AD, Saint Nicholas’ popularity was rivaled only by the Virgin Mary. Saint Nicholas was “the most powerful male saint on the Church calendar: the patron of sailors, Vikings, Russians, Normans, barrel-makers, thieves, perfumers, picklers, florists, haberdashers, and many more – but especially of children.”

Little, if anything, can be said with any historical certainty about St. Nicholas. He was the bishop of Myra on the coast of modern Turkey in the early 4th Century. He allegedly died on December 6, 343 AD.

In the 12th Century, he was believed to be a magical deliverer of small gifts to kids on the eve of his day, December 6. Children prayed to him and left out their shoes to be filled with treats. But legend says he did much more than that.

He was a wonder worker of miracles; in fact, he was a darn super hero long before the first comic book was ever imagined. He rescued sailors, soldiers, children, starving people, and slaves.

He once saved three daughters from being sold into a life of prostitution by secretly delivering bags of gold to their poor father at night. Perhaps this has some truth to it as any non-super human could perform such a heroic act, but he also brought three murdered young men back from the dead after they were dismembered, shoved into barrels, and pickled! Apparently, he flew long before Superman entered the scene. He also was able to do what can only be called teleportation of both himself and others.

Clearly, he was a nurturing, passionate (super) man, but he was no wimp or pushover either. He often was portrayed as carrying a whip or rod. Children both loved and feared him. He expected children and others to keep up with their church lessons and to be moral.

My mother-in-law, who grew up in Germany, said when she was a child someone dressed as St. Nicholas visited their home. He asked her and her siblings if they had been behaving. Her father replied, “Not all of the time.” St. Nicholas then gave each of their hands a stern smack with his rod.

PROTESTING PROTESTANTS vs. ST. NICK

After the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the tradition of Saint Nicholas, along with devotion to other saints of the Catholic Church, came under fire and were banned in areas controlled by Protestants. In England, Elizabeth I in 1558 ended all Saint Nicholas related activities. In England and Scotland, gift-giving moved to New Year’s Day.

Saint Nicholas survived in eastern Europe, where the influence of the Reformation was weaker. He also survived in Holland, where there were both Catholic and Protestant areas. (It was the Dutch who would eventually bring Saint Nicolas to North America.)

Both German Catholics and Protestants replaced Saint Nicholas with a figure that was much more Bible-based: the Christ Child (das Christkindl). Thus, this moved the gift-giving from December 6 to Christmas Eve, December 24. (To read why Christmas is celebrated on December 25, see our previous article.)

But Baby Jesus just wasn’t menacing enough for parents. Parents wanted a figure that would instill some fear into their kids to help keep them in line. Saint Nicholas was benevolent but also a disciplinarian. After all, the dude carried a rod for beating children.

So, new figures started to appear who accompanied the Christ Child to substitute for Saint Nicolas’ rod. But these characters brought menacing to a whole new level! Many were downright horrifying: Aschenklaus (Nicholas in Ashes), Pelznickel or Belsnickel (Nicholas in Furs) and Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas), along with an “assortment of devils, witches with iron teeth, female disembowers, monstrous goats, or monks armed with switches” and Krampus, Hans Trapp, and Klabauf, who carried whips, chains, and sacks to steal away children.

Meanwhile, Catholics kids in southern Europe got the better end of the deal. They received gifts on Epiphany (January 6) from the Three Kings or the kindly good witch Befana or a “pooping log” (!?!).

THE MODERN MAKEOVER

It was not until the 1800s that our modern version of Santa Claus emerged.

In 1809, Washington Irving published a mock history called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. This satire introduced Saint Nicholas, who the Dutch loved and still celebrated on December 6. For those outside NY, this was the first time many heard of “any flying, supernatural, nocturnal Christmas Gift-Bringer.”

One year later in 1810, John Pintard, a prominent merchant and founder of the New-York Historical Society, gave out a picture of Saint Nicholas accompanied by a poem. St. Nick was pictured as a stern-looking man in a bishop’s robe with a rod and a halo over his head. (See below.)

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More poems soon followed by others, one calling him “Sancte Claus.” In the next few years, variations of the Dutch name for Saint Nicolas, Sinterklaas, appeared in American print: Santa-claw, Santeclaus, Sandy Claw, Santiclaw, Sanctus Klaas. All were based on oral, folk traditions with slightly different takes on the gift-giving wonder worker.

In 1821, the first lithographed work in the U.S. was also the first to publish a picture of “Santeclaus.” It was titled The Children’s Friend, a poem complete with the essential modern staples for Santa Claus: gifts on Christmas Eve, a team of reindeer, snowy chimney tops. Bowler writes, “The Children’s Friend wrench[ed] Santa Clause out of his Dutch context and plac[ed] him in a winter setting appropriate to North America in December.”

A year later, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a series of poetry for his daughters and published them anonymously in the newspaper the following year, titled “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” This would become the Christmas classic familiar to many today:

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly…
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Moore ignited an explosion of interest in this Saint Nicolas. Writers and illustrators competed to add to the story. “For decades there was no one standard version of the nocturnal visitor nor even agreement as to his name,” Bowler writes.  Some names included Kriss Kringle, Belsnickel, or some variation of “Santa Claus.”

Even his size was debated. Was he a small elf, even thumb-sized, to fit down chimneys? Was he a bearded grandfatherly-type or a smooth-faced youth? Sometimes he was dressed like a Dutch peddler; at other times he was dressed like George Washington.

By 1850, his home was securely set in the Arctic where he lived with his minions, a horde of elves. In the 1860s, German American cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s solidified what Santa looks like today.

In Europe, most continued to hold on to their own versions of a magical figure delivering Christmas goodies, but the harsher holdouts from the Middle Ages — Perchta the Disemboweler in central Europe; Père Fouettard and his whip in France; the demonic Krampus, who stole children in Austria; the cannibal giant Gryla in Iceland; the horrifying goat-beast Joulopukki of Scandinavia — were replaced by a considerably more kinder, gentler version of “Santa.” Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Bobbo Natale, Samiclaus, and others emerged. They all were variations of the Santa Claus theme, but all were big-hearted, grandfatherly gift-givers.

Bowler writes, “By midcentury the American Santa Claus was not only a fixture in the stories told in American homes, he was a positive boon to merchants.” Whatever else he was, this Christmas gift-bringer ended up being a business man’s dream.

READ:

Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of December 25th

Me & My Wife VS. My Kid & St. Nick: Breaking It to a 5-Year-Old Santa Isn’t Real

 

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Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of December 25th.

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Last Christmas season, I wrote a blog about how my wife and I decided that we would not be doing “the Santa thing” with our children. Ironically, of all the stuff I’ve posted on this blog, this turned out to be the most controversial.

The other thing that struck me with mild amusement is no one even bothered engaging with our reasons, leading me to suspect that many giving me pushback only read the title and didn’t actually read the article. Among some of the debate, the weatherbeaten topic of whether Christmas has a pagan origin arose. Again, this has nothing to do with my wife and I deciding not to perpetuate the Santa tradition with our children, but since it’s a topic of debate that often comes up, I decided it was something worth looking more deeply in to.

I recently read Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday by Gerry Bowler, who received his Ph.D. in history from King’s College in London. He’s a professor at the University of Manitoba and founding director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Contemporary Culture at Calgary’s Nazarene University College.

What Dr. Bowler’s book lays out so well is that the same debates that surround Christmas today have pretty much been going on since the beginning:

How should people celebrate the birth of Christ? Debated.

On what date was Jesus born? Debated.

Is December 25th really a pagan holiday? Debated.

Should Christians even celebrate the birth of Christ at all? Debated.

THE FIRST 3 CENTURIES

Christmas, as we celebrate it in the United States today, is a mixture of Christian and non-Christian elements. After all, the holiday is named after Christ and, regardless of when he was born, it marks the event of his birth as special. Are many of the traditions practiced during modern Christmas not based in a biblical Christian faith but instead in folk traditions from numerous cultures? Certainly. Do some of these folk traditions have pagan religious roots? It seems very likely.

If we go back to the first century to the New Testament, the earliest Christian documents we have, they never say whether Christians should celebrate the birth of Christ or not. Based on the New Testament and other historical evidence, we know what year Jesus was born, but nothing is said in the Bible about the specific month or day.

Interestingly, historic evidence tells us that several centuries passed before Christians even started celebrating the birth of Christ. The early church focused instead on the death and resurrection and imminent return of Christ. It should be noted only two of the four Gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) even included anything about Jesus’ birth in their narratives.

In the 2nd century, pagan critics like Celsus, a Greek philosopher, targeted Christianity and began mocking the virgin birth. The 2nd century also saw the rise of Gnosticism, a heresy which combined Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy. Gnostics denied that Christ truly took on flesh; it was only an illusion; he had remained spirit because the material world is, according to them, evil. At this time, Christian writers started focusing more on the birth of Christ.

By the third century, Christian writers had started speculating about when specifically Jesus was born but not particularly to celebrate it. Some favored dates in May or April, but December 25 and January 6 were dates also proposed. Though some opposed celebrating the birthday of Christ as a holy day, other evidence shows Christians started to take more interest in Christ’s day of birth.

In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire, and Christians now had the freedom to partake in holy days publicly. Christ’s birth was soon being celebrated. The exact year it became widely celebrated throughout the church is not known, but a document from 354 AD called Philocalian Chronograph, a sort-of almanac, lists it as a holy day on December 25.

THE BATTLE OVER DECEMBER 25th

Why December 25th?

Here are some often-repeated theories:

THEORY #1 – As the Roman Empire transitioned from paganism to Christianity, Constantine or some other Roman or Christian leaders chose to replace a pagan holiday on December 25th with a Christian holiday.

Or

THEORY #2 – Before Christianity was legalized in 312 AD, Christians would hold their own festivities at the same time as pagan holidays to camouflage their own gatherings. This would certainly make sense during the times Christians came under severe persecution by the Roman government.

Some of the usual suspects of the original pagan holiday for December 25 are:

  • The feast of Saturnalia.
  • Brumalia, dedicated to Saturn and Bacchus.
  • The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus).
  • The birthday of the Iranian deity Mithra.
  • Some other winter solstice celebration.

PROBLEM #1 – Now, the big problem with both Theories #1 and #2 is simply this: there’s no evidence for them. Not that there’s no evidence for pagan festivals around the same time as December 25, but there’s nothing anywhere saying that Christians started celebrating Christmas during this time for one of these reasons.

Further, one telltale sign of a theory without evidence is a lack of specificity; in other words, it’s common to claim that Christmas is on December 25th because of a pagan holiday, yet (as the list above shows) no one seems able to say which holiday. In fact, the earliest evidence of anyone making this sort of argument dates from the twelve century!

PROBLEM #2 – Moreover, there’s other issues with the pagan-replacement theory. Modern scholarship says it’s quite possible that some of these pagan festivals, especially the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, were started after Christians began marking December 25 as a special day. On top of this, claims of similarities between the Iranian deity Mithra and Christ are complete fabrications, including the December 25th virgin birth of Mithra.

PROBLEM #3 – The mindset of the early church has to be taken into account. To the irk of their pagan neighbors, Christians and Jews have always been stubbornly exclusivists; they believe in only one true God and one true faith. Historical evidence tells us that “countless sermons and books by preachers and leaders of the young Church stressed the need to avoid any association with the world of idols and state cults.”

Though it appears pagan folk customs eventually intertwined with Christmas tradition over the centuries after Christianity became widely practiced, it’s highly doubtful the devout, often-persecuted early church would adopt pagan practices, especially when it was often persecuted by the surrounding pagans for not adopting their practices!

PROBLEM #4 – With this, no records from that time explaining the dating for Christmas use any of the above theories.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #1 – Instead, one explanation (which seems odd to us modern folks) is the ancient idea that great men were born and died on the same date. Thus, since Jesus was crucified in late March, he may have been born around that time too. But if we start calculating at conception, the correct beginning of a life, that would put Jesus’ birth in late December.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #2 – Another explanation was based on another ancient idea that the first day God created the earth was springtime, and since Jesus’ birth was comparable to the creation of the universe, the angel must have appeared to Mary to tell her she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit on March 25. Then, nine months later, Jesus was born in December.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #3 – Some calculations for Jesus’ birth resulting in the December 25th date start with the account in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception. His conception took place when John’s father, Zechariah, was serving in the Temple at their tribe’s appointed time. By examining the tribal duty roster found in the Old Testament, it was concluded John was born on June 25th. Luke records Mary, Jesus’ mother, visited John’s mother, Elizabeth, in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. So, December 25th fits once again.

At the same time, other Christian churches adopted January 6th to mark Christmas or “Epiphany,” including Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Antioch. This date may have been chosen because they used a different dating system and/or calculated the date of Easter differently than the West. Eventually, some of these churches adopted the December date as well, but some Eastern churches still adhere to January 6th today.

In 529 AD, Emperor Justinian made December 25th a national holiday. As centuries past, December 25 to January 6 became the Twelve Days of Christmas and the Advent season also developed.

Bowler observes astutely, “For whatever reason the Roman church chose December 25 as the date on which to celebrate the Nativity, it was a momentous decisions that would cause centuries of controversy and conflict.”

GROWTH INTO A SPECTACLE

Bowler writes, “From the 300s on, the observance surrounding the celebration of the Nativity became more laden with rituals, art, and music, until it grew into the second holiest day on the Christian calendar.”

Just as the debate about December 25th continues until this day, the debate about how to celebrate the birth of Christ (as well as the role of pagan traditions in celebrating) stretch from ancient times until now.

For whatever reason December 25th was chosen, it has proven to be troublesome.

For one, preventing a co-mingling of the traditions proved difficult with Christmas being celebrated around the same time as the pagan midwinter celebrations, especially if you consider that after Emperor Constantine, Christianity went from a small group of devout followers to a very large group with many nominal followers.

Arguments were made that Christians should not celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior as the pagans celebrate. This didn’t just mean not adopting pagan folk traditions, like decorating with greenery; this meant not doing things to excess – excessive eating, excessive gift-giving (or excessive expectations of gifts), excessive drinking. Times haven’t changed all that much. Some argued Christians should mark this holy day not by greed but by fasting and charity.

Eventually, many church leaders recognized they couldn’t stop the masses from practicing the customs they loved so. Thus, instead of banning them, they Christianized them. Certain pagan and folk traditions, as long as they didn’t conflict with Scripture, were claimed for Christ. They were re-branded and given new meaning connected to the Christian message.

But, as you’re well aware, the debate never ended.

Where much of the Christian/pagan debate about Christmas today has to do with grumpy atheists and non-Christians using the pagan argument to discredit Christmas, most of the arguing back then was Christians against Christians, pretty much making the same exact arguments. Likewise, some Christians in the early church protested against the materialism surrounding Christmas, imploring people to essentially “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

Jump to much later in history: by 1500 AD, Christmas celebrations were “solidly entrenched in western European cultures” with much variety and many of the familiar traditions and attitudes we associate with Christmas today, as well as many of the same troublesome excesses.

Yet, over time, Christmas became so marked by drunken chaos that Christmas in some places was all-out banned.

For a period, Christmas became much like St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. today; the celebration had nothing to do with the holy person it was honoring; it was simply an excuse to act like drunken idiots. This banning of Christmas happened primarily after the Protestant Reformation (1517 AD) when there was no separation of church and state, such as by the Puritans and other Calvinists. No surprise there. The Enlightenment didn’t help either.

Christmas became thought of as a time of debauchery celebrated only by the lower classes. Any notion of holiness or religion vanished for the most part. No one was keeping the “Christ” is Christmas.

But Christmas would survive near-extinction and become the most celebrated holiday of all time that we know today.

Not surprising, this re-branding started in the United States. In the 1800s, a group of New York poets, illustrators, and writers helped make Christmas into what Americans know it as today: a domestic, child-friendly holiday.

One of these writers was Washington Irving, who introduced his readers to Saint Nicholas. In 1821, William Gilley published The Children’s Friend, the first to print a picture of our modern idea of Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote those famous words, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house…”

Around this same time in England, old carols were being rediscovered and new ones were being written. Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (one of my all-time favorite stories) in 1843, which “helped turn Victorian Christmas into a crusade against selfishness and greed” and “reunited the English Christmas with Christianity.” Christmas cards were invented in London in that same year. The royal family had a big influence too. Prince Albert, who had a German background, and Queen Victoria modeled Christmas as a family-oriented celebration with Christmas trees and roasted turkey.

Eventually, Christmas wiggled itself back into those stuffy Protestant churches because the common folk wanted it: “Christmas returned to Protestant church life because the rank and file of membership wanted it. It made its way against official opposition in many denominations until there was so many local groups celebrating December twenty-fifth as the birthday of Jesus that opposition was futile and indifference impossible.”

All this conflict has been over the birthday of the Prince of Peace. If nothing else, that should cause us pause. And we didn’t even touch on Santa yet.

NEXT: The History of Santa: Christian Saint or Pagan Satan?

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Who Jesus Ain’t: Learn more HERE.