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Where Did Santa Claus Come From?

Here we are in the height of the Christmas season, just a little less than a week before Christmas Day, and on Marked by Grace, we are talking about the various Christmas traditions that are central to our celebration of Christmas. This week, I want to talk about the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus. There might not be a more popular tradition for folks with kids than Santa Claus. He is everywhere at this season of the year. You see him in commercials and advertisements in stores. You see him in Christmas decorations. People are baking cookies for him. He is world famous with regard to Christmas. I want to talk about where he came from. Well, the man we call Santa Claus is actually a man whose name is Nicolas. His actual real existence is shrouded in mystery. We know that Nicolas was a real historical figure, but there is a lack of verifiable historical material that makes it really hard to verify the specific details of his life. He was real. But what is fact, and what is fiction in his existence? Well, he was born in the late two hundreds in a Greek seaport town named Paterna. He was born Nicholas to a very, very wealthy family. And when his parents died, he inherited their fortune. Nicholas did an amazing thing. He gave away his wealth. He became famous and legendary for giving away his wealth by giving gifts to needy children. Nicholas was a lover of children, and he loved to spend his wealth on those children. And that is exactly what he did.

Nicolas, the Bishop

He had a legendary habit not just of giving gifts but of secret giving of gifts. Nicholas was not just a wealthy man who gave it away. He was also a Christian. He placed his heart and his trust in Jesus. And He entered into the ministry. He became the Bishop of an area called Myra. He attended the Council of Nicaea. If you know about the Council of Nicaea, this was a council of Christians all across the known world who were defending the deity of Jesus. A heretic by the name of Arias was arguing that Jesus was fully man but not fully God. The participants at the Council of Nicaea declared Jesus is fully God and Jesus is fully man. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, was an attendee at Nicaea and argued strenuously for the deity of Jesus. In fact, legend has it at the Council of Nicaea that this kind, gentle man who became impoverished giving away his money to children was so earnest about the deity of Jesus that he actually walked up to Arias and smacked him in the face. So he was a strong, bold contender for the deity of Jesus and the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and he paid for that. He was actually imprisoned in a great Roman persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. He was released by the Edict of Milan when Constantine came to power, and he was restored to his office as a bishop and restored to freedom. But the man was an incredibly faithful Christian and an incredibly faithful bishop. He was a man who defended the faith and a man who defended the faith with his freedom.

When he died, the Roman Catholic Church named him St. Nicholas of Myra, in Roman Catholicism. If you are a leader in the church who has done extraordinary marvelous things, you get labeled a saint that is a Christian of special note. In the New Testament, we understand as Christians, everyone who is a believer in Jesus is a saint. But in Roman Catholicism, saint is a designation of honor for Christians who have done very, very special things. And Nicholas after his death, became St. Nicholas, and not just St. Nicholas, but in the Roman Catholic Church, he became the patron saint of many different things, including the patron saint of children. In Roman Catholicism, again, if you do something special, you’re not just a saint. But if you do something amazing and overwhelming, you can be the patron saint. A patron saint is someone who is understood in Catholicism to be a defender or a protector of a large class of people. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children because of his love and care for children. That’s all ancient history and the historical Nicholas. Then, in the Middle Ages, we get to the St. Nicholas, St. Nick, the Santa Claus that we understand, and our popular culture today it came from the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, St. Nick, or Santa Klaus as he was called in Dutch. He became affiliated with this one who gave gifts to children in December, sometimes as early as December 6, on St. Nicholas Day when it is celebrated, but he came to give gifts not just at St. Nicholas Day but around the Christian celebration of Christmas. It was through the Netherlands that the popular celebration of Santa Claus came to the United States of America. But Santa Claus wasn’t popularly recognized by Christians in America for the same reason that Christmas trees weren’t.

Santa Claus in America

Christians in America wanted to have a pristine celebration of Christmas and remember the birth of Jesus in an uninterrupted undiluted way. But that all changed in 1823. In 1823, the poem was published, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” And “Twas the Night Before Christmas” talked about this right jolly old elf who came into the house and rewarded the occupants of the house with Christmas. With the publication of” Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Santa Claus took off in American culture, and he took off in American Christianity. His popularity was expanded in 1863 by a guy named Thomas Nast, who drew cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. And he created the first really, really popular cartoon portrayal of Santa. Then, in 1931, a guy named Haddon Sundblom, making cartoons and advertisements for the Coca-Cola Company, drew an image of Santa Claus. It was even more popular than the one from 1863 with Nast. And it is that image, the Sudnblom image from 1931, that is in the popular conception of American minds and of Western minds as we think about Santa Claus, St. Nicholas of Myra.

That’s how we celebrate it today. Listen, I need to be honest with you. In the Lambert house, when our kids were teeny, tiny, Santa Claus, St. Nick was not a focus for us, we really did want to focus on Jesus and remembering his birth, and we wanted to focus on gratitude for grandparents and parents and friends and siblings who gave you gifts. So we did not focus on Santa Claus in our house when our kids were growing up. But so many committed Christians who love Jesus and want to focus on Jesus and who love the Bible and want to focus on the Bible do have Santa Claus as a key part of their religious celebration of Christmas. Here’s what I want to say to you if that’s true. The St. Nicholas of history, the man who was a Roman Catholic bishop, the man who defended the deity of Jesus, the man who was imprisoned for Jesus, would never have wanted to do anything to detract from the centrality of Christ at Christmas. But I think that same St. Nick, who loved children from a sacrificial and generous point of view, I think he would be thrilled to know that he is a part of the commemoration of the celebration and the birth of Jesus for so many children in so many Christian homes all across the world. I think it would delight his soul to know that he is a part of extending to so many people, in the name of Jesus, a very Merry Christmas.