by Jason Williams
Gift giving is one of the chief practices of Christmas in our culture and the principal gift giver is Santa Claus: a white-bearded, rotund ‘saint’ clad in red with a big sack of toys whisking around the earth on Christmas Eve to shoot down chimneys and deliver toys to children of all ages.
The figure of Santa Claus is traced back to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra during the fourth century. What we know about Saint Nicholas is limited and mostly from legend. He was a man of great compassion and concern for the poor. Tradition tells us that he inherited a large sum of money from his parents when they died while he was still young. He used this money to practice charity and help those in need. Beth Bevis relates the following legend:
A family in his community was desperate; the father had lost all of his money and had been unable to find husbands for his three daughters. The daughters were in danger of being given over to prostitution or another form of degradation when, one night, Nicholas appeared at their home. He tossed three bags of gold into the open window (or down the chimney, in some versions) – thereby saving them from a terrible fate.
Though a connection to our current practice of gift-giving is found within such a tale, we must question how gifts such as iPods, candy canes and legos faithfully reflect the practice of charity seen within the stories of Saint Nicholas. Surely Nicholas was not canonized because he gave dolls and toy trains to children who had their basic needs met!
Over the past 200 or more years, the faith and practice of Saint Nicholas has been co-opted. In the US, 17th century Dutch settlers first brought legends of Sinter Klaas (Klaas is the Dutch short-form of Nicholas), a red-vested bishop who brought them gifts on his feast day. Then Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy scholar, elaborated upon the Dutch tradition in his 1823 poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas). Liturgical vestments became the fur garments of an elfish peddler. Secret charity for the poor became expected toys for those affluent enough to purchase ‘kerchiefs and dream of sugar plums. The faithful practice of a sainted bishop became masked by rosy cheeks and tiny reindeer.
In 1863, Harper’s Magazine began to publish the first pictures of Santa Claus. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, illustrated the pictures based on Moore’s poem and through them created the popular image of Santa. But Nast’s illustrations were not merely pretty pictures. In an 1863 image, for example, Santa is robed in stars and stripes and offers a special gift: a dancing doll depicting Jefferson Davis hanging by a noose. Yes, Santa is pictured as lynching the President of the Confederacy. With this image, the man once associated with charity, which sustained the lives of the poor, had become political messenger and herald of victory for a nation at war.
In 1931, Coca-Cola used a human-sized version of the jolly old elf in a series of advertisements. Eight years later Montgomery Ward invented Rudolf and his shiny red nose. Santa Claus became associated with his famous Coco-Cola red suit and songs about magical creatures and fanciful toys for children who were good. I imagine daughters about to submit themselves to prostitution to feed and shelter their families would not fall on the “nice” list of the newly imaged Santa, bishop of Coca-Cola and saint of corporate America.
The Santa Claus of which we sing today is not the fourth century Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus is a cultural icon formed and shaped by salesmen, political cartoonists, and the poetry of the wealthy elite. As such, Santa Claus has more to do with consumerism, nationalism and sentimentalism than any kind of saintly life, most especially one centered on charity.
Can Christians reclaim our Saint Nick? Within our current practice of Santa Claus, I have little hope. But when our gift giving turns from toys and treats to charity and almsgiving for those whose basic needs go unmet, then perhaps invoking the name of Saint Nick will teach us all what it means to follow the Christ child born on Christmas day.
Jason Williams is a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond and a member of Hyaets, an intentional Christian community in the heart of the Enderly Park neighborhood of Charlotte, NC. A verson of this article is taken from their Advent Guide, "Christmas Is Not...Advent in the Apophatic Tradition," which can be found on their website: http://www.hyaets.org/.