The Western World has largely discarded Christmas as the story of God becoming man to save humanity and all creation. In our historical ignorance we forget Saint Nicholas, and in our skepticism we deny Santa Claus. All that is left is warm feelings, decorations, and presents. Isn’t there something more?
By Mark D. Harris
My father was driving me to Hadley Preschool on a chilly December morning when I declared, “Daddy, there just can’t be a Santa Claus. He couldn’t fly all over all over the world in one night.” My father looked at me, smiled and said, “Your mommy and I knew that you would soon figure it out.” My discovery of the absence of Santa Claus didn’t bother me, it was just a fact, cushioned by the reality that presents kept coming even without Jolly Old Nick.
The Predecessors of Santa Claus
Years later, I discovered Saint Nicholas (AD 270-343), a Christian Bishop in the Eastern Roman Empire city of Myra, in the Antalya province of modern Turkey. Nicholas was born to a wealthy Greek family and was famed for his generosity. One story recounts that St. Nicholas secretly gave gold coins for the dowry of three daughters of a poor man in his parish. He dropped the coins down the chimney, and the coins landed in the girls’ stockings, which had been left to dry by the fire. Had Nicholas not done so, the girls would have been unable to marry and thereafter forced into prostitution to earn their living. Nicolas was reputed to have performed many other acts of great kindness and even miracles.
In Western European tradition over the centuries, the real Saint Nicholas faded into history and then into the legend of Sinterklaas. Children left their shoes outside, and Sinterklaas filled them with candy and gifts on 6 December, Sinterklaas Day. The Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) feast was celebrated by the Catholic Church throughout Europe.
The Roman Catholic Church celebrated Christmas on 25 December of each year. After Henry VIII broke England away from Catholicism and founded the Anglican Church (1534), English citizens stopped celebrating the feast day of Saint Nicholas and focused attention on Christmas Day itself. The ancient British character of Father Christmas, who embodied feasting and merrymaking, gradually became the personification of Christmas. Originally, Father Christmas was not associated with presents or children.
The great reformer Martin Luther was heir to a German tradition that the Christ child (Christkindl) brought presents to children. The dates for his gift giving ranged from Sinterklaas Day to Christmas Eve, depending on the prevailing myth in each area. The tradition spread across Europe, aided by the Lutheran church. Kris Kringle is an Americanized version of Christkindl. Moving away from the religious connotations of Christkindl, the secular Weinachtsmann, a German version of Santa Claus, gained popularity in Germany in the twentieth century.
The settling of the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries brought together people from vastly different backgrounds in a new and challenging environment. Christmas traditions of Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, and Christkindl combined and morphed into Santa Claus as we think of him today; a jolly old man in a red coat lined with fur, riding on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivering toys to all children on Christmas Eve. Legends of Santa Claus jumped back across the Atlantic to influence Britain and Europe during the Victorian Era (1837-1901).
Christmas and Santa Claus in the modern Western World
Christmas is a Christian holiday. It is not a part of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Jainism, or any other major religious movement. Nonetheless, residents of nations in which a majority of people celebrate Christmas (like the United States) will often celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas. Nonbelievers may laud the peace, love, joy, hope, and other ideas of Christmas without acknowledging that the message of Christmas is the coming of the One who alone is capable of bringing peace, love, joy, and hope.
Discussing Christmas without mentioning Christ is not new. In 1897, New York Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church wrote the following editorial to Virginia O’Hanlon in response to her letter asking for the truth about Santa Claus.
DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Faith is only as good as the object of that faith, and God Himself is the only Person worthy of our ultimate faith. Since Jesus is the Christ and is the historical foundation of Christmas, by excluding Him from his essay, Mr. Church exhibited the very skepticism that he so eloquently berates. The 125 years since Virginia wrote the Sun have only seen escalating skepticism and its consequents – suffering, tragedy, and war.
Is there really a Santa Claus?
If by Santa Claus we mean an old human male (of any race) in a red coat who flies around the material world in a sled pulled by reindeer to deliver toys and other gifts to every child in the world in one night, the answer must be “no.” There is no observational evidence for any such phenomena, nor for the North Pole location, elf workshops, and other accretions to the Santa Claus legend over the decades.
If by Santa Claus we mean an intangible flush of positive feelings culturally associated with December 25th of each year in certain parts of the world, the answer is “probably.” Many people seem to have positive feelings at Christmas, and US suicide rates are lowest in December.
If by Santa Claus we mean a supernatural being or some type of force that inhabits a different dimension, an alternate reality of time and space from our own, and somehow interacts with ours in a benevolent way, the answer must be that we don’t know. Furthermore, we can’t know, because such a being or force would not be directly observable by anything currently known in the material universe.
If by Santa Claus, we mean a human priest of Greek culture and origins who lived 1700 years ago in the southwest portion of modern Turkey and was renowned for faithfulness to God and personal generosity, the answer is absolutely “yes.” Legends have developed around old Saint Nicholas over the centuries, but that does not change the fact that he lived, and even after his death continues to live in heaven with Jesus Christ, his Creator.
We must conclude that Santa Claus is real, but not perhaps as we think him to be. God wishes to bless His creation, including people, despite our best efforts to vex him and destroy what He has made. His greatest gift is the Son of God (and God the Son), Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, the Father Lord sends showers of blessings on those who love and follow Him. Those showers even fall on people who reject and hate Him.
The real Christmas story, that of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men, contains the greatest blessings. But even the legendary Christmas story, that of Santa, the elves, reindeer, and presents, holds a little happiness for mankind, including those who oppose the Living God. The Lord gave us Saint Nicholas, the traditions of Father Christmas, the Christkindl, and all the things from which we receive our modern perceptions of this great holiday. God shares the joys of Christmas, even the secular version, with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs. Jains, Daoists, Confucians, animists, agnostics, atheists, and everyone else who will simply take them. But He wants to give us the best version, the true version, the real version.
Our Creator wants to give us everything, which means give us Himself. We instead choose so little. He desires that we have the best, but we choose to have the least. God offers diamonds, and we prefer lumps of coal. And yet He keeps giving, day after day, year after year, and millennia after millennia. The Lord gives us our food, our raiment, our homes, our families, and our places. He provides our bodies, our skills, our minds, our hearts, our moments, and our opportunities. Our Father records our past and guides our future. He lets us share in the air, the planet, and our universe. God’s grace towards those who hate Him will not last forever. So now, all men must choose the real Christmas, for it leads to the real Christ.
Who is Santa Claus? Saint Nicholas was and is the real Santa Claus. He served God in his earthly life and continues serving Him today. God is the ultimate Creator, Giver, Judge, Lord, and Sustainer of all things. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, provides everything, every day, everywhere, and in every way, for us. He is the eternal center of all existence. Finally, Jesus gave His own life, dying to wash away our sins, our wickedness, and our pain. Three days later, He defeated death and reclaimed His life, rising in His body with the promise that we, too, shall rise again. Jesus Christ won the final victory, and gave the greatest gift of all…everlasting life to those who have accepted Him.
So, yes, Virginia, and the rest of mankind, there is a Santa Claus, and his name is Saint Nicholas. Santa works for the ultimate giver, God Himself, in Jesus Christ.
“Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” https://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia-there-is-a-santa-claus/.