Jon Acuff over at Stuff Christians Like has a great post today about “The Santa Problem.” (Aside, let me just say that I am glad I have stuck by my intentional avoidance of “Christian” radio and “Christian” music in general this season, as I have been blissfully unaware of the song “Where’s the Line to See Jesus?” until reading about it on his blog. Merely being aware of this song’s existence has made me a little queasy this morning. I can only imagine how I would feel if I actually heard the song.) I started to comment at length on his blog on the “Santa Problem,” but I don’t want to be a comment hog, so here’s my take on it.
I have no “problem” with Santa Claus as a figure, as a symbol of Christmas, as a fun game to play with our children, etc. We have experienced many Christmases in which Santa Claus really did come through. There were years when I was unemployed, or underemployed, and there was no way that we could afford presents for them. Each year, a “Santa” came through, either in the form of gift cards or money orders sent anonymously through the mail, or once through a letter (delivered through a teacher at their school) asking for wish lists from each child, along with clothing sizes, etc., followed a week or so later by an overwhelming number of boxes from Amazon and other places delivered to our door (including a bicycle that had to be hidden in a neighbor’s garage until Christmas Eve). So we could never, ever tell our children not to believe in Santa Claus: we believe in him ourselves! At least, in the spirit of Santa Claus.
My “problem” (if I may call it that) with Santa is not with him per se, but with the completely secularized version of him that pervades modern American culture, even among Christians (especially Evangelicals). “Santa” means “Saint.” “Claus” is short for “Niklaus” (Nicholas). The name “Santa Claus” is an American misunderstanding of the Dutch Sinter Klaas, which is Dutch for “Saint Nicholas.” All of the stories about St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, describe his generosity which was fueled by his love for Christ and his desire to show compassion on the poor and defenseless just as Christ had done. Nicholas took seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 about doing good deeds secretly, so as not to seek the praise or rewards of men, but instead so that only “the Father, who sees in secret” would know about it. Santa Claus filling the stockings comes from a story of St. Nicholas tossing bags of gold into a window so a poor man’s daughters would have money for their dowries. (In some versions of the legend, they had hung stockings near the window and the gold fell in them.) Our grandparents always told us about getting an orange in their stockings Christmas morning. We thought it was just because they were poor. Well, they were poor, but the orange originated as a symbol of a gold ball (or bag of gold) put in the stocking by St. Nicholas, from the story of the three daughters.
In Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and other countries, St. Nicholas comes on St. Nicholas’ Eve (December 5) and his gifts are discovered on the morning of his day (Dec. 6). Gifts on Christmas Eve are not brought by St. Nicholas but by the Christ Child, known in German as the Christkindl. Just as people misunderstood Sinter Klaas as “Santa Claus,” they misunderstood Christkindl as “Kris Kringle” and eventually applied that name to the “Santa” figure too.
When I was a child, the legends about Santa Claus I was told had nothing whatsoever to do with St. Nicholas, much less with Christ. “St. Nicholas” was just a name I heard in the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Most of the “information” I knew about Santa Claus came from that hokey claymation-like Christmas “special” Santa Claus is Coming to Town, hosted by Fred Astaire (because every 5 or 6 year old in the 60s and 70s was a huge Fred Astaire fan). In that story (which was rebroadcast on cable last night), the name “Claus” comes from a tag enclosed in the blankets of a foundling infant left at the doorstep of a family of elves named the Kringles, who adopt him and give him the name Kris. The stocking tradition comes from the fact that an evil mayor (with the voice of Boris Badenov) outlaws toys and requires everyone to lock their doors and windows at night, so the red-headed Kris Kringle (voiced by the red-headed Mickey Rooney–the real St. Nicholas was from Turkey: no way was he a redhead!) has to drop the toys down the chimney, and they land in the children’s stockings that are drying by the fire. This “Santa’s” generosity comes not from a love for Christ or a desire to demonstrate Christ’s compassion for the poor (as in the stories of St. Nicholas), but merely from his own heart. “Santa” has become the Christ figure, rather than a servant of Christ as the real St. Nicholas was.
Flash forward to 2004 and the movie The Polar Express. Now it is clear that Santa is God, or at least a god. The climactic scene of that movie, with all the elves and children waiting in the square on Christmas Eve for Santa to get into his sleigh, is reminiscent of the throngs in St. Peter’s Square for the Christmas or Easter appearance of the Pope in Rome. The children in this movie sing that when Santa’s sleighbells ring, the herald angels sing. That’s funny: I thought the herald angels sang “Glory to the new-born King!” in reference to Jesus Christ.
Santa’s reindeer were invented by Clement Moore for his aforementioned poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” except for “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” who was invented for a giveaway storybook by Montgomery Ward department stores as part of a marketing campaign. That storybook was later turned into a song by Johnny Marks, which was made into a hit record by Gene Autry, and then became a much-repeated TV special hosted by Burl Ives (because kids in the 60s and 70s were just as crazy about Burl Ives as they were about Fred Astaire: much more so than, say, the Beatles or the Monkees). So for most Americans, their “beloved Christmas” legends are all about marketing. Even the way Santa looks to Americans is derived from marketing: he is the Coca-Cola Santa, based on the advertising art of Haddon Sundblom. By contrast, when St. Nicholas visits children, he is often clad in his Bishop’s regalia, complete with mitre and crosier, symbols of his office as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name he bestows gifts.
I don’t have a problem with Santa, provided we understand that “Santa” means “Saint” and that the Saint in question is Nicholas, who did (and does) what he did (and does) from a heart full of love and devotion to Jesus Christ. As such, the real Santa is a perfect symbol of Christmas, and his work of generosity at Christmas is Christ’s work, for it is done in Christ’s name. That other guy, in the Coca-Cola costume, with the magic snowball and the magic corn, who gives choo-choos to warlocks and previously starred in B-movies with Judy Garland, who has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ or his Church, is an imposter.