Can Jesus and Santa Get Along?
This past weekend I participated in a Christmas ritual that many parents struggle with: a visit with Santa Claus.
Why the struggle? For some parents, Christmas and Santa Claus go together like white and red striping on candy canes. You cannot separate the two. Santa is everywhere and just about every culture. For others, Christmas and Santa are a clashing pair like fruitcake and tofu. Many Christians lament telling the myth of Santa Claus to their children because they believe it sends the wrong message of Christmas: The holiday is about getting presents from a jolly fat guy and not the celebration of Christ’s birth.
At the same time, parents do not want to be a Grinch about Santa. Nobody likes that kid in school going around telling everyone that Santa isn’t real. Parents are then confronted with the reality of explaining how and why Santa is not real. Either parents go with the flow of Santa or become Santa haters.
Is there a better way to involve Santa Claus into the Christmas mythos? Can Santa Claus can be taught from a Christian perspective? Can we work Santa into Christmas without tearing out the hearts of little children?
Today, we can thank the Dutch for Santa Claus. The Dutch celebrate Christmas with Sinterklaas (also, Black Peter, but that is a whole other mess) who teaches children about giving, generosity, and service. He even looks like Santa. Sinterklaas then morphed into Santa Claus when English peoples adopted him for their own celebrations. Once English speaking peoples adopted Sinterklaas as Santa Claus, he became a commercialized icon.
The figure of Sinterklaas was a Dutch effort to honor a fourth century saint name Nicholas, who is highly revered in Eastern Christianity. The historical figure, Saint Nicholas, was a bishop of Myra. Several stories exist about Nicholas, but the most prevalent features Nicholas giving gold or money to poor children. One story tells of Nicholas giving money to three poor daughters who were destined to live in poverty without a dowry. Some attribute the hanging of stockings on Christmas to Nicholas because another story tells of Nicholas putting money in poor children’s socks.
Sinterklaas and Santa have a murky trail from Saint Nicholas, but the connections are there. In Holland, Sinterklaas walks around with Christian symbols: his red bishop’s mitre, crozier, and cross.
So, how to live in a culture of Santa Claus without being a grumpy Scrooge while still maintaining the celebration of Christ?
Christians can teach their children the story of St. Nicholas’ and his virtuous deeds. Not that he magically appears in people’s houses, but that he is a figure of generosity, service, and kindness. Instead donating cookies to the jolly fellow on Christmas Eve, parents can teach their kids to donate gifts to those who have none. Instead of teaching a watered down version of St. Nicholas through Santa, we can teach children about the historical fourth century Christian who gave and did not expect to receive.
Selfishness abounds in our American story of Santa, but it does not have to be that way. Jesus and Santa can get along. We can see Santa, in his red robe, beard, and hat as a person that teaches about the St. Nicholas story and who embodies the message of Jesus Christ: selfless love. Instead of Santa Claus, parents can call him St. Nicholas. By minimizing the gimmick of Santa, children can focus the virtuous portions of the St. Nicholas imagery.
Go ahead. Take that picture with Santa Claus, er … St. Nicholas. Teach children the St. Nicholas story. Instead of children asking for gifts for Christmas, have children ask St. Nicholas what they can do to serve others through generosity, service, and kindness.
As for explaining the Christian significance of Rudolph and his reindeer games, you will have to ask the Easter Bunny for advice.
By the Rev. Alan Rudnick, from CC Blogs, a network hosted by Christian Century and timesunion.com, December 13, 2011. Alan Rudnick is pastor of First Baptist Church, Ballston Spa, New York. Permission pending.