Growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, (at that time one of 15 Soviet Republics), one of the most important questions I had for my Communist parents, was “Is Grandfather Frost real?” Sure, he was real to them – as much as everlasting Lenin and soon-to-be worldwide victory of Communism.
The Official Soviet Union was an atheistic country. There was no place for Christmas. The greatest holiday of the year was replaced with a giant 3-day New Year’s celebration, but with all the stolen “ammunition” of Christmas – pine trees, decorations, family time together. Grandfather Frost was a central figure of it all. He was very much real. So real that he wouldn’t hesitate to take a shot of vodka, after delivering presents to us children…
Here in America, I was surprised to meet his twin brother, by the name of “Santa Claus”. And there was another interesting observation waiting for me – some fundamental Christians (who, by the way, encourage their children to love Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, etc.) would not simply reject, but proclaim small nuclear wars during Christmas time to kill all sneaking around Santas.
So, let’s go back in time and see, who is this “Man in Red”!
He has a number of names around the world, but all come from one roots to one Bishop Nicholas of Myra in Greece (270 – 6 December 346 AD) who became one of the most beloved saints to ever grace the face of this earth. He was revered in both Eastern as well as Western churches, one of the few things they ever agreed on. So loved was he, Emperor Justinian built a church in his honor in 540 AD. Bishop Nicholas was proclaimed Saint and received his new name St. Nicholas. It seems the good bishop could do no wrong. He was the patron saint of children, mariners, merchants, countries and cities. He saved dowerless maidens in distress by throwing money into their windows. He is credited with saving ships at sea and somehow or other, saving countries from famine. After he was dead, he was reported to have come down from heaven to distribute gifts to good little boys and girls.
When Christmas was settled as a day to celebrate the Christian tradition, the Roman church decided on an old pagan day of celebration of Dec. 25th. There was no way to pin down the real birth date of Jesus, and trying to keep their flock away from paganism, the church decided to bring their religious holiday into the pagan calendar–hoping to wipe out any trace of pagan celebration. The odd thing is, Nicholas of Myra was a Christian man himself, a Bishop of the church and one of those to have been present at the first council of Nicea.
During the reformation which spread around Europe in the sixteenth century, the Feast of St. Nicholas all but disappeared. Christkindl (Christ child) replaced Nicholas as the bearer of good tidings and gifts. The Protestant reformers felt that their children should not spend their time worshiping a bishop, lured by presents and goodies. They thought they could channel their energies instead into celebrating the birth of the Christ child. The custom changed slightly with Christkindl being the main player instead of Nicholas. The practice of gift giving, however, remained. Despite this new emphasis, the Nicholas legends prevailed, especially among the Dutch.
During the 1600s, exchanging gifts or celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas was forbidden by the Puritans in America. It wasn’t until the Dutch settled in what later became New York that they brought with them their tradition of SinterKlaas. SinterKlaas was just one variation on the name of St. Nicholas and they celebrated it on the eve of Dec. 6th, the anniversary of his death. Switching the date to Dec. 25th came when the English took over the colony. The English children wanted their own “SinterKlaas”. As the Protestants didn’t believe in celebrating saint’s days, the date was changed.
Numerous parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and the figure of Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples prior to their Christianization. Since many of these elements are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Santa Claus.
Odin was sometimes recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, as leading a great hunting party through the sky. Two books from Iceland, the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus’s reindeer.
Iceland children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice, she claims, survived in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas as a result of the process of Christianization and can be still seen in the modern practice of the hanging of stockings at the chimney in some homes.
This practice in turn came to the United States through the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam prior to the British seizure in the 17th century, and evolved into the hanging of socks or stockings at the fireplace.
The most famous spin in the history of Santa Claus in America came with the poem written by another Christian man, Dr. Clement Moore, a dentist, who was also a theology and classics professor at Union Seminary. He wrote ‘A visit from St. Nicholas,’ that went on to become ‘The Night before Christmas.’ At last, Santa had a description. He was now a jolly, happy and a rather hefty soul who had a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen. Later, Robert L. May created the ninth and most famous reindeer of all. He was the guiding-light of the team and his name was Rudolph.
So far, Santa Claus was pictured as elf-size, fitting in his compact sleigh, which made timely deliveries to all those homes around the world extremely difficult. However, Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator for the Coca Cola Company helped Santa with those shipments when, in 1931, probably inspired by New York Times article published in 1927, he drew a series of Santa images and pictured him human-size for their Christmas advertisements. Santa痴 stature and the ads continue to the present time. In Old Europe a new red American suit was put on St. Nicolas instead of his old green one.
As we can tell now, “Ho-Ho-Ho Man” is a mix of ancient saints, gods, legends, and … Coca-Cola.
The question remains, shall we let him in our Christian homes?
It should be pretty clear now that Santa Claus really has nothing to with the Jesus story, but everything to do with the traditions surrounding Christmas that have carried down throughout the generations.
Some families do not welcome Santa into their home. Some say they feel uncomfortable “lying” to their children about this obviously fake person who brings gifts every Christmas. Small children sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between what is real and what is make believe, so it may be difficult to separate the make-believe story of Santa from the real story of Jesus. Still others worry about the materialism that comes with the modern day marketing of Santa.
To many, the myth of Santa Claus is a dearly held tradition stemming back to their childhood.
In modern day America or Russia, it is impossible to shelter your children from Santa if they don’t hear about him at home; they are bombarded by images of Santa at school, on TV, at the mall. Regardless of whether you allow Santa to be part of Christmas or not, it is worthwhile to talk about Santa, who he is, why other people keep talking about him, and about the true meaning of Christmas.
… In our homes, as we put up a Christmas tree, illuminate the house with colourful dancing lights, secretly wrap presents, let’s not forget to also build a Nativity Scene with our children. Let your young ones to put Baby Jesus in the cradle. Let’s read the Children’s Bible together, as Christmas approaches. Let’s teach our children that “Jesus is the reason for the season”.
And if, one day you get the question, “Is Santa real?” hug a child and tell him or her, “Yes, he is, as much as your Cinderella and Lion King”. They will find an answer. And it will change, as the time goes by. The Truth will find the Way…
By Serge Taran