For most Americans, especially young Americans, Santa Claus is the primary symbol of the Christmas season. Many thoughtful Christians struggle with the images of materialism and commercialism at this time of the year. Have you ever wondered where the legend of Santa Claus came from? More importantly, have you ever considered how this legend has its roots deeply planted in the Christian tradition? Let's consider how the legend of Santa Claus can be a teaching tool for Christian families.
St. Nicholas is the common name for Nicholas of Myra, an ancient town in modern Turkey. In the early Christian era, Myra was the metropolis of Lydia, the town traditionally associated with St. Paul, who changed ships in its harbor. Nicholas is said to have been born of affluent Christian parents, was very spiritual from an early age and devoted his life entirely to his faith in Jesus Christ. Nicholas was ordained a priest and later bishop.
Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift-giving. In his most famous exploit, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and would probably, in the absence of any other possible employment, become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, but being too modest to help publicly, he went to his house under the cover of darkness and threw three bags of gold coins through the window. The father confronts Nicholas only to have him say that he should not thank him, but God. People began to suspect that Nicholas was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents.
In 1804, the New York Historical Society revived the Dutch tradition of St. Nicholas as a gift-bringer. In 1809, Washington Irving published his satirical "A History of New York." The annual St. Nicholas Day dinner festivities included a woodcut of the saint, tall with long clergy robes, accompanied by a Dutch rhyme about "Sancte Claus" (in Dutch, "Sinterklaas" or in English, "Santa Claus"). In 1821 William Gilley issued a poem about "Sinterclaus" who dressed in fur and drove a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.
In 1882, The Rev. Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal priest, composed and read to his children a series of verses. His poem was published a year later as "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," more commonly known today by its opening line, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Moore gave "St. Nick" eight reindeer (and named them all) and he devised the now-familiar entrance by chimney. (Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was not born until 1939 when Robert May, an illustrator for the Montgomery Ward department store, created the image.)
In 1863, Thomas Nast, a caricaturist for Harper's Weekly, developed his image of Santa Claus. Nast gave his figure a flowing set of whiskers and dressed him all in fur from his head to his foot. Nast's 1866 montage, "Santa Claus and His Works," established Santa as a toy maker. An 1869 poem by George Webster identified the North Pole as Santa's home.
In the 1930s, the Coca-Cola Company was looking for ways to increase sales during winter. They turned to Hadden Sundblom, a commercial illustrator, who created a series of drawings associating Santa Claus with a bottle of Coca-Cola. The success of the advertising campaign fueled the legend that Coca-Cola actually invented the image of the modern Santa Claus by decking him out in a red and white suit to promote the company colors. The Coke illustration is the accepted image of Santa Claus in the hearts of most Americans today.
Amid all of the folklore and creative marketing, I believe in Santa Claus because he was a Christian minister who devoted his entire life to anonymously serving poor children for the love of Jesus Christ. The Prophet Isaiah wrote, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'" Isaiah 52:7.
Dr. John Beyers is Senior Minister of Conyers First United Methodist Church, North Main Street in Olde Town.