A pastor friend of mine recently shared his thoughts on the so-called “Santa Problem” with his congregation. Some of the faithful, he noted, had expressed some concern about the inclusion of Santa Claus in their Christian Christmas celebration, and wanted to know his opinion of the matter. Many Christians, he said, see the problem as having either one of two possible solutions: either embracing the Santa story completely and encouraging their children to believe in his existence, or completely shutting their family away from the Claus myth cycle and focusing only on the Nativity. Ultimately, he noted that his family uses a compromise position between the two, where their children are taught about Santa Claus as a fictional character, to be categorized along with Cinderella.
He was amused when I told him that a similar question was rampant within the atheist community, but for a much different reason. Where Christians were concerned with Santa overshadowing or even replacing the importance of Jesus’ birth during the Christmas season, many atheists tended to view the Santa myth as being harmful given its supernatural qualities, as well as problematic from the fact of telling a false story to children. However, other atheists like Dale McGowan see the Santa story as an excellent opportunity to teach children about skepticism and critical thinking. “Do you think it’s possible to visit every house in the world in one night?” they ask their kids. “How is it possible for a reindeer to fly?”
I agree with both my pastor friend, as well as Dale. Santa Claus as we know him today is both a fictional literary creation, as well as an object lesson in the value of critical thinking. And yet even as an atheist, I feel that Jesus and the Nativity story should be included in my family’s celebration of the holiday for the very same reason. For both Jesus and Santa have much in common, and have followed similar paths throughout history.
Obscure Historical Origins
Both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ have appellations in modern culture that are far removed from any kind of historical reality. “Santa Claus” as many people know, is an Anglicized version of the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” which itself is derived from “Saint Nicholas.” Likewise, “Jesus Christ” comes to us as name “Yeshua,” filtered through Greek, Latin, and English, combined with the Anglicized version of the Greek title “Christos” meaning “annointed.” The reliable historical information that we have for both come only through devotional sources, with little more than a name and a spatio-temporal location to anchor them in history. For St. Nicholas, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that he lived in the Fourth Century in Myra (modern-day Turkey), where he was a bishop in the early Catholic Church. Any more beyond that (including his presence at the Council of Nicea) is pseudo-historical speculation or pure legend. Similarly, the minimal historical certainty with regard to Jesus places him in Palestine in the First Century (although that could even be disputed).
The legendarium associated with St. Nicholas is wide, and several tales vie with Jesus’ miracles in terms of quality and quantity. In one such story, the city of Myra was in the midst of a terrible famine, during which a ship entered port with great quantities of grain, bound for the Roman Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas is said to have asked the ship’s captain to donate a portion of his cargo to the city in its hour of need, but the captain did not want to risk the wrath of Constantine. When Nicholas promised him that he would not suffer adverse consequences as a result of their aid, the captain relented. Miraculously, when the ship made its final delivery in the capital, the missing weight had been restored, and the donated grain was sufficient to last the citizens of Myra for two years. In another such story, Nicholas happened upon a village suffering economic hardship and famine; the local butcher had enticed three boys into his shop, where he killed them and chopped them into pieces to sell as animal meat. Though the butcher tried to hide his misdeed from the Saint, Nicholas saw through to the truth, and resurrected the boys out of the barrels in which their bodies had been stored. Of course, the modern Santa myths imbue him with all sorts of magical powers that one might also find associated with Jesus, such as the ability to pass unhindered into closed rooms, the ability to transcend physical restrictions on travel, and the ability to discern a person’s internal thoughts.
“You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,” goes the song. And indeed, the value of Santa Claus as a moral authority seems to have given him significant influence over the centuries. After all, any parent knows that the power to give a gift is reflected in the power to withhold it as well, and parents from medieval to modern times have threatened their children with Santa’s poor graces in response to poor behavior. In the Germanic countries, the moral component of Santa Claus is made explicit, as the figure is divided in two, one benevolent and the other malevolent. The traditional “Bad Santas” take many forms, from the human Belsnickel to the demonic Krampus. Each version reinforces the importance of good and moral behavior. In Protestant Germany, the overlap between Santa and Jesus was so clear (and anti-Catholic sentiment was so high) that the Christ-child himself (in German, kristkindle) stepped in to take over duties for the papish figure of St. Nicholas. In America, both Jesus and Santa are combined as one, as our version of the Santa myth gives him the birth name of “Kris Kringle” (derived from kristkindle).
The pagan influence on the stories told about Jesus are under robust debate among theologians and historians, although it cannot be disputed that there are parallel figures in the preceding pagan culture (Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus), as well as among contemporary tales (Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle-Drawer, Pythagoras). Likewise, although it may not be clear precisely how one influeced the other, there is a clear pagan parallel for Santa Claus in the midwinter visitation of Odin, one of the chief gods of the Norse myth cycle. Though prominent largely due to his role as a warrior, hunter, and master of wisdom, Odin was also said to wander among the mortals in the guise of an old man with a long white beard, cloak, and an eight-footed steed (cross-reference the “eight tiny reindeer” of the modern version of the Santa myth). Odin was said to visit and bring gifts during the midwinter festival of Yule, which even now is made equivalent to our modern Christmas season, and from which we derive the Yule log, feasting and merriment, and remembrance of deceased family members.
Both Jesus and Santa have been affected by the influences of the modern commercial culture. Indeed, as American society grew increasingly secular throughout the 20th century, Christian products and services expanded into a new niche market which has only become more pronounced. Christian bookstores, coffee shops, and clothiers are but a sampling of the ways in which Jesus is both salesman and product. Likewise, the warm embrace of Christmas as a holiday centered on gift-giving personified by the ultimate gift-giver has given us a Santa Claus who now is the star of his own films, television programs, books, and video games, but whose image is put into service to market these and all other products to consumers during the lead-up to the Christmas season. Whereas in his past incarnations, Santa reflected a desire of parents to reward their children for good behavior, he now bestows manufactured goodness on the naughty and nice with equal fervor; to do otherwise would be bad for business.
In the end, of course, Jesus is Jesus and Santa is Santa. But I think that the lessons we learn as we critically examine one can be used to help us better understand the other. And so in my house, at least, both figures are welcome; Christmas is a holiday big enough for all.