Q&A: St. Nicholas and Christmas

St. Nicholas and Christmas

Question

Is St. Nicholas real? What is his history?

Answer

Saint Nicholas is also known as Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, or just plain Santa. It is believed that his legend grew from the historical figure of Saint Nicholas of Myra (c. 15 March 270-6 December 343), who was bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. He allegedly was a wealthy man who had a habit of giving secret gifts.

Though Saint Nicholas of Myra was a real man, the mythical Santa Claus grew out of several traditions from various cultures. Accurately tracing Santa Claus’s historical development is rather difficult, but it clearly includes combinations of some pagan gods and folktales, the most notable being the German god Odin, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and the English Father Christmas.

In German mythology, Odin (aka: Wodan, Woden, [he has over 170 names]) was revered as a god. He was often depicted as a long-haired, one-eyed man having a long broad coat and wielding a spear. [1] He is associated with and the leader of the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession of wild hunters (elves, fairies, or the dead) through the winter sky. [2] Yule (aka: Yuletide or Christmastide) is associated with the Wild Hunt.

The Dutch Sinterklaas is traditionally depicted as an elderly man in a red cloak with a long white beard carrying a red book, who knew who has been naughty or nice. He was accompanied by Zwarte Piet who would spy on children at their chimneys. Sinterklaas would even carry a chimney broom that he used to spank naughty children. [3] He is connected to the god Odin who was previously mentioned. Odin, as the leader of the Wild Hunt, flew on his horse and was accompanied by two black ravens. These black ravens would listen at the chimney, similar to Sinterklaas' Zwarte Piet, to inform Odin about who had been good and bad. Sinterklaas is the primary source for the majority of the America's depiction of Santa Clause today. [4]

With this background, no wonder the Puritans legislated in the mid-1650s to abolish the celebration of Christmas in England. The first personifications of Christmas in England occurred in the 15th century. While its celebrations somewhat waned for a time, the English Father Christmas was revived during the Victorian period and, over time, festivities of feasting and drinking developed into a day for children and gift-giving. Father Christmas, or Old Christmas, was seen as dressed in a fur gown, having a holly wreath, and riding a Yule goat. [4] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Chapman & Hall, London, 1843), is also credited with helping to revive Christmas and shaping some of the themes attached to it. [5]

Christians today should be aware of the idolatrous history and how it may detract from the true story of Christmas. The celebration of Christmas should not be about gifts, but the gift of Jesus; not about celebrating presents, but the presence of Christ; not about the tradition of men, but the glory of God alone.

"Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).

Notes

[1] Simek, Rudolf and Hall, Angela. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. (BOYE6, 2008).
[2] Briggs, Katharine M. An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (Pantheon Books, 1978), and The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature (University of Chicago Press, London, 1967).
[3] McKnight, George Harley. St. Nicholas: His Legend and his Role in the Christmas Celebration and Other Popular Customs. (Nabu Press , 2012). (https://archive.org/stream/stnicholashis00mckn#page/n1/mode/2up). Last Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.
[4] Clark, Cindy Dell. Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children's Myths in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press, 1998).
[5] Hervey, Thomas Kibble. The Book of Christmas (BiblioLife, 2008). See Robert Seymour's Book of Christmas Illustrations (https://standrewsrarebooks.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/52-weeks-of-inspiring-illustrations-week-27-robert-seymours-book-of-christmas-illustrations-1836/). Last Accessed 17 Nov 2018.
[6] Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. (McClelland & Stewart, 2004).

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).