Secular v Spiritual Christmas Celebration
Can you remember, at age 4 or 5, your first encounter with Santa Claus? Was he found sneaking around in your house? Or was he in some department store seated upon what looked for all the world like a throne? Do you remember hanging your stocking? Did you ever wonder why he came down the chimney? It seemed to me that only “bad guys” broke into the house when everyone was asleep. And what does all of that have to do with celebrating the birth of Jesus…the Christ?
Through the years I have heard many arguments for and against the way Christmas is celebrated. I have listened intently as some pled that Christmas has become so secularized that we as Christians should simply not participate. I have noted their somber, staid, puritanical and reverent observance of His birth. Likewise, I have heard some argue that celebration is what is important; that Joy to the World is more than a song. These hold firmly that Santa and all his trappings add to the festive “Spirit of the Season.” Their testimony hinges on “Good Tidings of Great Joy!”
So, who is right? And how did a fat man in a fuzzy suit, reindeer, chimneys, stockings, trees, holly, and exchanging gifts become associated with the birth of our Savior? Let me begin with some history.
The Legend of Santa Claus
The legend of Santa Claus probably began with a young lad named Nicholas who was born near the beginning of the second century A.D. in a town called Patara in the Province of Lycia. Paul visited here during one of his missionary journeys and established a church. Nicholas was born to Christian parents and ultimately entered the priesthood. One of the legends surrounding this man goes like this…
A neighboring family had fallen on very hard times. The three daughters would likely remain forever unmarried ( a disgrace in those days) because they had no dowry. They decided that one of them would become a prostitute so that she might provide money to the others for a dowry, and the family be sustained. Nicholas is supposed to have heard of the plan, and in the wee hours of the morning disguised himself in a hooded cloak and entered their house. When the girls awoke and began to dress, they found a little bag of gold. Some say in a shoe—others say in a stocking.
Either way, most certainly the tradition of hanging a stocking to be filled with gifts began with the story of a young Christian, moved with compassion to give of his own possessions, to those who could not help themselves. Through the years Nicholas became St. Nicholas, the eventual Bishop of Myra. He became identified with children and was always known as the gift giver. When he died, the 6th of December was celebrated as his feast day.
From Russia was added the tradition of coming and going thought the chimney and the idea of reindeer. Both were based on Shaman practices. During the midwinter ceremony of Annual Renewal, the priest would climb a pole and disappear through the smoke-hole in the roof. He was presumed to be going to make contact with the “other world.” After his contact was made, he would return through the smoke-hole to tell everyone what had happened on his journey and what he had learned.
In some of the northernmost parts of Russia, reindeer were considered a measure of a man’s wealth, much as horses or oxen were in early America. A sleigh pulled by a multi-member team of reindeer would be a real status symbol. Again, the Shaman religious ritual included transportation by reindeer-powered vehicle for the Shaman priest when he made his “other world” journey. As Christianity replaced Shamanism, “Nicholai” was attributed the same supernatural characteristics that the previously worshipped Shaman had enjoyed. To do less would have been impossible in the mind of the believer. Certainly the Christian God would give to His emissaries at least the same, if not greater powers, than the Shaman had enjoyed.
The Dutch have Sinter Klass. It seems that he and his assistants keep a huge leather-bound ledger during the whole year. In it they recorded all the good and bad behavior of the Dutch children. Sometime, near the end of November, Sinter Klass and his assistants (a hint of the elves) pack their ledger and begin to make their rounds. Toys and presents are given to boys and girls who have been “good” through the year. A scolding is in order for those not so good. And for those who have behaved like you and me? . . .they are wrapped in chains and carried off in a sack!
Santa Claus, as we know him in the United States, was probably born in 1822 in New York. Professor Clement Clark Moore was a teacher of Oriental and Greek literature at the General Theological Seminary. He was best known for his Hebrew Dictionary, but was fond of writing little rhymes for his family’s amusement. Let me allow Robin Chrichton, from his book Who is Santa Claus? tell the story. . .
“It was Christmas Eve and New York lay under a mantle of snow. That afternoon, Professor Moore set off by horse-drawn sleigh to buy the Christmas turkey. Washington market was at the southernmost point of Manhattan and it was a good hour’s drive to get there and another hour to come back. He had spent the morning helping Jan, his odd job man, to clear snow off the paths around the house. Jan was of Dutch descent, a tubby little man with a white beard, twinkling eyes, and rosy cheeks An idea for a poem began to take shape, as the jingle of the sleighbells and the horse’s hooves pounded out a rhythm on the snow. That evening when the Moore family gathered round the fireside, Professor Moore read it for the first time…
‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house…,Not a creature was moving, not even a mouse;The stockings were hung by the chimney with care;With hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there….
The Best Gift Ever
But, you ask, what has Santa and all that to do with the birth of the Baby in the Manger? Nothing…and everything! One of the most familiar verses of Scripture says, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That verse from John’s Gospel reveals the very nature of God. He didn’t just love (the way we love ice cream), He SO loved that He was motivated to give. More, not only was He motivated to give, He acted on the motivation and “gave.” And more, not only did He act on His motivation and give, but He gave the very dearest possession He had, “His one and only Son.” Paul tells us in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is the essence of it—God gave when we didn’t deserve to receive! That is the ultimate definition of a gift! What I could not do for myself—what I could in no way earn—Almighty God Gave!!
It seems to me that no Christian can dispute that “giving” is what Christmas is about. It was at the birth, in the manger, that the motivation became action. That action, some 2000 years ago, continues to this day to be the singular, most incredible miracle in human history. God, the Holy, the Majestic, Awesome Creator of the Universe, clothed Himself in human flesh to begin a brief sojourn upon this created earth, in order to establish a means whereby sinful man can be restored to fellowship with Himself.
Similes and Metaphors Are Powerful Teachers
Jesus, while walking the shores of Galilee, often began His teaching by saying, “The Kingdom is like…” His use of the common to explain the sublime was teaching at its best. His ability to cause the unexplainable to be put in terms that could be understood was miraculous in itself. More, it taught those of us who would teach, how to teach. Take the familiar and compare it to the unfamiliar and the student will see a picture of the unfamiliar in the familiar. But, you ask again, what has that to do with Santa Claus?
Can you see that the legend of St. Nicholas and his bag of gold can be taught as a “practical” adaptation of John 3:16? Here was a man who gave the best he had to some who had not earned his help, so that their family might be sustained. Should we not use this story to teach our children that we are in need of what we cannot do for ourselves, and we are reminded of the fact every time we hang a stocking from the mantle? Could we not say to them, “Doing this is like…?”
Could we use Santa’s arrival from the North Pole to illustrate how Jesus left heaven (to a child both places are equally distant) and appeared supernaturally on this earth? As we wrap presents, talk about how God wrapped Himself in human flesh; how the wrapping paper would soon be discarded, but the gift of value was contained within the wrap. Let the reindeer, representing the wealth that Santa possesses, speak to the wealth of heaven, made available to us through the birth and death of His Son.
As we decorate an evergreen tree, explain to our children that He provided eternal life (ever-green) for us and that we remember and celebrate His provision. Get out a compass, show them how the needle points to the “north pole.” Explain how the Star guided wise men then just as the compass pole guides wise men today. Take the thought one step further and relate how Santa’s home is a marker to guide men on their journeys. . .and the Home of our Savior is a marker to guide men to eternity.
Let the toys be blessings, and also remind us that the Magi presented Him with the finest gifts they had. We are now to present, not gold, nor frankincense, nor myrrh, but our own bodies as “living sacrifices” as Paul reminded us in Romans.
St. Nicholas, Sinter Klass, Santa Claus. Part legend, part truth. But is not the basis of the legend, loving and giving? Is not the lesson that Jesus taught again and again one of loving and giving? Children are the center of the celebration. Is not the Christ-child the focus of all our faith and hope. For a few short moments each year sharing one’s self with others takes center stage in our otherwise pretty self-centered lives. Is that all bad?
There are many who overlook the opportunity to make Christianity come alive while attempting to maintain its “purity.” If my practical approach seems foreign and offensive, I would simply remind you again of Jesus’ method of ministry. He always began with people where they were in order to challenge them to be something greater.
It would be wonderful if our society understood and reverenced the deep meaning of the Season. But, the fact is that most do not. It would be sublime if worship were the focus of the Holiday (that’s Holy-Day, not Holly Day). But, the fact is that in most instances it is not. It would be perfect if we could raise our children without the influence of the world soiling and staining their minds. But, the reality is that we cannot.
Living in the spiritually hostile environment in which we find ourselves requires survival techniques. One must think of himself in terms of a commando soldier behind enemy lines. Our mission is as clear as on the night the angels sang. We must tell of His love. We must tell of His provision for us. We must provide hope to a world without hope. And, we must use any and every means at our disposal to accomplish our mission.
Drawing within a shell has never been commanded or even suggested by our Lord. And yet, you and I both know Christians who are unwilling to get involved in the nitty-gritty of every day experience. They bury their heads in the sands of “Bible Study” and “Fellowship with other Christians” and seem unaware and/or uncaring about the world around them dying without hope. They have lost sight of their mission.
They have forgotten that Jesus did not stay in the safety and luxury of heaven, but emptied Himself of His Deity and became flesh and blood. He gave it all to get us back in tune with the Father. He wasn’t worried about maintaining the “purity” and the “orthodoxy” of the Jewish faith. He was concerned about reconciling lost, hopeless, hurting, empty people. And He used wine, mud, olive trees, fish, pigs, coins, bread, storms, grain, weddings, lamps, oil, barns, sheep, sheds, ships, synagogues, and sinners to illustrate His message. He was accused of blasphemy on several occasions. He hung out with the wrong crowd. He violated all the rules. He healed on a Sabbath! He preferred sinners to Sadducees when allocating His time. The Pharisees were never satisfied with His performance for when He saw people in need, He did not wrap His robes about himself and pass by, but opened His hands, His heart, to meet their need. His brand of faith had feet. It was practical. People could understand it. It met needs. It was threatening to the status quo. His command to us to be no less!
It is easy to wag one’s head at those revelers who have missed the whole point of the season, to cluck our tongues and condemn them for their behavior. It is just as easy to get so involved in the warm fuzzies of the Season, that we fail to notice those who are in pain. It is easy to be “spiritual” and exclude, or “worldly” and indulge. Finding God’s balance is the key.
I challenge you during this Christmas Season, seize the opportunity to teach as Jesus taught. Take the familiar and relate the Spiritual meaning to it so that the message, the Truth, of the Season is not missed. Explain the gifts, talk about the Magi. Relate the story of the star. Explain the Santa Claus is no more Jesus than a mustard seed is heaven, but we can see something of what God is like in both Santa and the seed.
Join me (and the heavenly host) praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”