Who is Santa Claus? Is it just coincidence that Santa comes to visit all the little children on the same night when the birth of Christ is celebrated? How is advent related to all of this? Here is an American perspective.
I confess that these are not questions that I thought about very much when I was growing up. Christmas was just about spending lots of money and getting lots of presents. I assumed that it was like Easter when we looked for hidden eggs and candy on the same day that Christ’s rebirth is celebrated.
A couple of years ago, a Texas father wrote a story about the way his mother had explained to him the secret of Santa Claus – that there were in fact Santas everywhere. When children are old enough, they are “activated” to become a Santa by receiving a message – their growing awareness of empathy, generosity, and connection to others. Being Santa means being willing to selflessly share your passion and your abilities with everyone. It has nothing to do with religion, politics, race or nationality. It’s as simple as taking the time to do something for someone else. “It’s the spirit of St. Nick,” he said. So who was St. Nick what was his connection with Advent and the tradition of Santa Claus?
St. Nicholas was one of the early Christian Bishops in Asia Minor. Both of his parents died from the plague when he was still a teenager, leaving him with a significant inheritance which he used to promote the Christian church. This was still during the time when the Roman emperors were persecuting and torturing Christians. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured for nearly ten years until Constantine converted to Christianity, became Emperor, and declared it a legal religion. Nicholas was released from prison and made an Archbishop. He was one of the attendees at the Council of Nicea, where critical and doctrinal issues about the nature of Christ were resolved in the famous Nicene Creed.
There are many stories about St. Nicholas’ life, kindness and generosity. When he died on 6 December, 325, his followers began a tradition of gift giving in his honor. St. Nicholas day is still observed on 6 December in some countries, but in others it seemed natural to merge that gift-giving celebration with Christmas, the birth of Christ and the greatest gift given to the world. Indeed, in Germany, parents were encouraged to teach their children that the true gift-giver was the Christ Child, or Kriss Kringle. Further north, in Protestant Holland, the Dutch still said St. Nicholas was the gift giver, or in Dutch, SinterKlass – which became the English Santa Claus. The Americans couldn’t be bothered to try and figure it out, so Kriss Kringle, St. Nick, Santa Claus and Father Christmas all came to be used interchangeably.
St. Nicholas was usually depicted throughout the Middle Ages as a tall, thin, white-bearded cleric wearing the typical red bishops vestments. He was typically used as a deterrent to misbehavior. In Germany, he would be accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht who, parents said, would eat children who misbehaved. In Switzerland, he would take wicked children back to the Black Forest; in the Netherlands, they would be taken to Spain. In Austria, he would visit the homes of naughty children and beat them with rods.
Full-length icon of Saint Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák, CC0 Public Domain
In 1823, the American Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem about a visit from Santa Claus called “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” that would be less terrifying to small children. Moore created a more friendly St Nicholas who was “chubby and plump” and who, with “A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.”
Thomas Nast created a transformative drawing of this friendly Santa Clause that became the basis for the appearance of the modern Santa Claus – a secularized figure surrounded by the fantasy that all of us grew up with. Of course, in my German heritage family, there remained the threat of coal in my stocking instead of presents if I wasn’t good. It was more than enough to keep me on my best behavior – at least for the few weeks before Christmas!
It is these “few weeks” that completes this short story about Santa and Christmas. Coal is probably not much a deterrent past the age of seven or eight, but it is a wonderful metaphor for the frustrated hope of presents that will “come” on Christmas day. The very word “come” is derived from the Latin adventus, or “the arrival of a notable person or thing” – spoken today in English as Advent – the preparation for the coming of Christ but also for the coming of a better world where we all help each other to be the best people we can.
“Merry Old Santa Claus” by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly January 1,1881
The four Sundays of Advent that precede Christmas each represents a different aspect of that preparation and is often symbolized by the lighting of candles in an Advent wreath – hope, faith, joy, and love. Each of these aspects seems especially relevant this year with the many difficulties that we have all experienced. Each of them have been gifted to all of us who worked to create our radio play for this Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street. We will sharing the experiences of many of the cast and crew over the next month and hope that, you too, will share with us the joy and enrichment that we felt.