My eldest is at a kura kaupapa Māori (a Māori language immersion school). In the last month, they’ve been doing self-directed learning about mythical creatures. Due to the timing, there’s been a lot of interest in Santa Claus: is he real? Where does he come from? How does he get down chimneys if he is so fat?
All good questions. As their resident nerd parent, I got asked to come to talk about Santa.
It starts with Saint Nicholas really. I hope all of you are aware of Saint Nicholas. He was around in the fourth century in the region around Lycia in what is now Turkey. A lot of his stories revolve around famines, which is suggestive of him living in poor communities. The most famous story is of a father with three daughters. he couldn’t afford their dowries to marry them off, so he planned to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas heard of their plight, and threw three bags of coins over the back fence, an act which resolved the dowry issue and is one of the foundation myths for the secret gift giving that Santa is renowned for. Another great story is when Nicholas visited a village in famine, he encountered a butcher who had been selling meat at exorbitant prices. God revealed that the meat was from the children of the villagers that the butcher had turned into ham. Nicholas’ prayers led to the death of the butcher, and raised the children back to life. That is a step up on Jesus who had a body to work with; Nicholas only had a ham from the other, other white meat. Nicholas’ feast day is December 6, and this is still the day some countries in Scandinavia give presents to their children. They probably don’t give ham. Saint Nicholas was an Italian saint initially.
As legends of Saint Nicholas came to Europe, they fused with a couple of other myths: Odin, who was renowned for leading the Wild Hunt of the gods across the evening sky, from who came Yule, and a big beard; and possibly also Saturn, who was the god of affluence and gift giving. Out of this mix you can probably see the travelling at night on sleigh with reindeer giving gifts. Yule is the midwinter festival around this time of year amongst the Germanic peoples, so it all fit pretty well.
It wasn’t really until the Reformation that all of this imagery changed in Europe to include the idea that the Christ child gives the gifts. The 16th and 17th centuries are about the time that the gift giving shifted more permanently from December 6 to December 25. Up until the fourth century, the Church in Europe had focused on the Epiphany (January 6) as the celebration of Christ’s birth. The shift to December 25th may be linked to an old tradition of it being nine months after Jesus was conceived, or just as likely it fit with the Southern solstice and it’s image of the Sun of Righteousness.
Santa Claus has gone through a few costume changes, though red became pretty common by the 18th century. He always seems to have had a beard, to have been fat, and quite jolly. In terms of the Santa we know, L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902 firmed up a lot of the basics around the North Pole, reindeer, sleighs, red suits, elves and the like. Then in the 1930s the image was really settled on with Coca Cola’s advertising with the Santa we all know so well. Whilst they weren’t the first to use it, their image had an indelible impact on popular culture.
When I was invited to speak at my daughter’s class and before I schooled myself up a little on the season, I really expected to be able to say that Christmas was initially about Jesus, got mixed up with European gods, before Coca Cola screwed it up with a fat guy in a suit. Now what really strikes me is the complexity of the dance between the Western Church’s season of Advent, Christmas and the Epiphany and the European traditions of the Yuletide and Santa Claus. The Western Church year and the Yuletide developed alongside each other, influenced by each other, but also separate from each other. There is a link in the values: peace, hope, joy, and love; but the history belies any ownership of this season by the Western Church.
Christmas can be about Jesus’ birth, if you are a follower of Christ and want it to be. But Christmas is just as legitimately a gift-giving celebration of our European origins. It’s a mash up. Or a fusion if you want to be fancier. The Christmas traditions lay bare the tension and dance between faith and culture. Faith and culture are both symbiote and parasite. So next time you see a ‘Jesus is the Reason for the Season’ sticker, you may want to scrawl ‘Actually, It’s Complicated’ underneath it.
Folk theology is alive and well today in the church. I get the creeps from Christians who are absolutely certain about things, who rail against Santa, and pagan festivals. There is no certainty in faith, and it’s hard to remove faith from culture, and Christmas just confirms that for me. So, celebrate this season how you like. Jesus or Santa? Up to you really. I prefer the dance of faith and culture, and Christmas is the mother of all those dances.