This discussion guide has been created for adult groups to explore the tradition of Santa Claus. It is designed for use in Sunday school classes, study groups or fellowship gatherings. Use this guide during an hour-long session, or adapt the exercises to work for your session length.
Read the entire guide beforehand. You will need to make copies of sections of this piece for each participant in your group. You will also need to bring a Bible and have available a chalkboard and chalk or a large pad of paper and markers. Each participant will also need a pen and paper.
Read aloud "The Magnificat" from Luke 1:46-56.
Discussion — "Ho, Ho, Ho" or "Ho, Hum?"
You may want to divide larger classes into groups of five to eight. Have one person in each group take notes. If there is only one large group, the recorder needs to write answers on a chalkboard or large pad of paper.
Have the recorder(s) make two columns: Ho and Hum. "Ho" will represent the positive aspects of the Santa Claus tradition and "Hum" will represent the concerns that are raised. Allow participants to voice their concerns or opinions about the Santa Claus tradition. You should expect a wide range of answers, from people who want to discard Santa to people who feel very strongly in favor of him. Someone should read the following questions aloud.
"What is it that I like about the tradition of Santa Claus?" (This can include anything from happy childhood memories to the cultural and psychological importance of myths.) "What is it that I do not like?" (Answers can range from theological questions to concerns about how commercialized Christmas has become.)
If you are working with several small groups, have the recorders share with the entire group likes or dislikes about the Santa tradition that seem to be held by more than one person. Record these answers on the chalkboard or large pad of paper.
The following should be read aloud. Consider having a different participant read each section. If you prefer, make copies and have each group read this part silently.
Who Is St. Nicholas?
Many people know that the myth of Santa Claus has its roots in the story of Saint Nicholas. Legend has it Saint Nicholas lived sometime during the first half of the fourth century (ca. A.D. 300-350). He was bishop of a town called Myra, located in what is now southern Turkey.
Myra was an important seaport in the ancient world. Sailors and merchants frequently stopped there to drop off cargo or to change ships. According to Acts 27:5-8, it was in Myra that Saint Paul and his guards, on their journey to Rome, boarded an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy.
Very little is known about the real Saint Nicholas. His name is Greek and means "people's victor," (Nikos + Laos). The earliest record we have of Nicholas comes from when the emperor Justinian (A.D. 527-565) ordered the restoration of a church in Myra named for this saint. Our lack of information about Nicholas is due, in part, to the iconoclastic upheavals of the eighth century when thousands of church documents about saints were destroyed.
A Few Nicholas Stories
One of the oldest surviving stories about Nicholas illustrates his reputation as a "people's victor." It relates the tale of three men who were sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. The whole city of Myra was in an uproar and the people asked the bishop to save them. At first Nicholas could not find the prisoners. It took him so long that by the time he finally did locate the three men, the executioner was moments away from carrying out the sentences. Nicholas literally had to run through the streets and through the crowd of people who had gathered to watch the executions. The bishop grabbed the executioner's sword and threw it on the ground. He untied the three men, removed their hoods and set them free.
Through the centuries, many stories about the life of Nicholas have been told. One in particular seems to have forever connected him with the tradition of giving gifts anonymously. It tells the story of a poor family with three daughters and no money for dowries. According to local custom, without dowries the young women could not have married and ran the risk of being sold into slavery. Nicholas dropped bags of gold down the chimney of the family's home so the daughters could escape a life of servitude.
designed by Emile de Bolle, 1997
St Nicholas Center Collection
How did we get Santa Claus out of a bishop known as People's Victor? Santa Claus is an anglicized form of the Dutch, Sinterklaas (a form of Sint Nikolaas). It came into usage after the English took over New Amsterdam and changed the city's name to New York. Santa himself is actually an amalgamation of several older traditions.
In the Dutch tradition, on the eve of his feast day (December 6th), Saint Nicholas would visit the homes of children. Treats of apples and sweets would be left as rewards for studying the catechism. With German-speaking settlers came the tradition of Kriss Kringle, a mysterious child who visited homes with presents on Christmas Eve. Kriss Kringle was, in reality, a mispronunciation of Christkindl (Christ Child). Some date this tradition back to Martin Luther, who created the story of Christkindlein, a mythical messenger of Christ. Among the other traditions that contributed to the creation of Santa Claus are the British Father Christmas, the French Pere Noel, the Danish Jules-Missen and the Romanian Mos Craicun.
The Santa we know today is uniquely North American. His visual appearance comes primarily from Clement Moore's poem, A Visit From Saint Nicholas (known by its first line, "Twas the night before Christmas..."), and from Thomas Nast's drawings which appeared in Harper's Weekly during the 1880's. In the place of a bishop's robe have come a red fur-lined coat and a sack full of gifts. Through the years advertisers have refined his image and now he appears as an English speaking, white-haired, secular Caucasian resident of the North Pole. This North American creation now bears little resemblance to the traditions from which it came.
Santa Claus has become a significant part of our cultural mythology. To some he represents the true spirit of Christmas in that he gives without expecting anything in return. To many he represents the best in all of us: joy, generosity and good cheer. The reindeer, the sleigh, the stockings stuffed with gifts and the secret trips down millions of chimneys are images that add to the lore and excitement of many childhood Christmases.
The Dark Side Of Santa
To others, however, Santa has a dark side. To critics the consumer society has deposited in Santa the values it holds most dear, namely, wealth, greed and consumption.
Recently, a New York marketing executive said, "In the advertising, industry Santa Claus is not a religious figure, though we still connect him to Christianity. He's a symbol people can readily identify. As a visual image he communicates a message quickly. You immediately know what he's about. To us he represents fun."
In recent decades, Santa Claus has made the trek across the Atlantic too. He now appears in Christmas celebrations all over Western Europe. You can also find him in Central and South America. He even appears in shopping malls in Japan where he is used to promote end-of-the-year retail sales.
In her book, To Dance With God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson wrote:
The Santa that we meet in the department stores... teaches us to beg for what we want, and he will be the provider. He teaches us nothing about how to give. How can we reconsider his image in the light of the whole truth? Some people, uncomfortable with the distortions and unwilling to allow Santa to upstage the celebration of Christ's birth, have relegated him to the position of a jolly postman who delivers packages at Christmas. Another viable solution is to return to Santa Claus his original role. (pp. 80-81).
- Am I happy with the role Santa plays in my holiday celebrations?
- In what ways could the St. Nicholas tradition work to enhance my Advent observances?
- Think of your own home. Would you prefer to discard the Santa tradition, keep it the way it is, or as Gertrud Mueller Nelson suggested, "return to Santa Claus his original role." Why?
- How can you remedy the things you don't like about the Santa tradition without losing the things you do like?
- What reaction might you expect from family members if you were to suggest making changes in the role Santa plays in your celebration?
If you are working with several small groups, have people volunteer to share some of their answers with the entire group.
For Further Consideration
Below are some suggestions on dealing with the tradition of Santa Claus. Consider providing each participant with a copy. If time allows, use them as the basis for an open discussion. Have a volunteer read the suggestions aloud. Participants may want to comment or offer their own ideas.
- Shift the focus away from Santa in the weeks before Christmas with Advent activities. Focus your preparations on getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, not the arrival of Santa. Consider having Advent services in your home using an Advent wreath and candles.
- Go back to the original source of the Santa Claus myth. Tell children (and adults) the story of St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop from Asia Minor who gave gifts anonymously to those in need. There are many wonderful tales surrounding this saint. You can emphasize the importance of imitating St. Nicholas instead of simply waiting for gifts from Santa.
- Resist connecting gifts "from Santa" with good behavior. This means abandoning attempts to manipulate children's behavior by saying "if-you-are-not-good-Santa-will-not-bring-you-anything." It also means talking to children frankly about how the Santa Claus tradition affects children who are poor and how it conflicts with Jesus' concern for those in need. Do not underestimate children's senses of justice and fair play. Cut back on the quantity of gifts children receive so that "getting gifts" is not the focus of the season.
- Collaborate with others who want to make changes in the role Santa plays in their celebrations. If you are a parent with young children you will need the support of other adults as you take these steps. Also, your children will be helped by knowing that there are other families making these changes. If you are single, or no longer have small children in your household, you can provide important support for those who are trying to make changes.
Creator God, we have so commercialized the day set aside to remember the birth of your Son. Instead of good news to the poor, our festivities often become a celebration of our wealth and prosperity. We struggle both as participants and as protesters. Guide our hearts and minds as we prepare to celebrate Jesus' birth. Teach us to be faithful witnesses to the wonderful peace and joy his coming brings to our world. Amen.
Rotating images: Julien Chavaillaz, Musée d'art et d'histoire, Fribourg, Switzerland. Used by permission.
Used by permission of ALTERNATIVES for Simple Living.
"Equipping people of faith to challenge consumerism, live justly and celebrate responsibly"
Resources for responsible living since 1973