The Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus Pt 1 – The Santa of Faith

As we approach the most joyous time of the year when we, goodly Christians, celebrate the birth of Jesus. During this annual celebration, our malls and much of popular culture also bring in Santa Claus among other secular icons. It is an opportunity to see two historical figures who have had their pasts differently developed.

When we think of our present day incarnation of Santa Claus, there is a historical figure who stands behind our current picture. Along the same lines, when we think of our present day evolution of Jesus Christ, there is also a historical figure who stands behind our current picture.

So how much of the historical Santa relates to he historical Jesus?

In considering the origins of Santa Claus we must go back the fourth century and a young bishop named Nicholas who, having inherited his parents’ estate after their death early in his life, became known for acts of mercy and charity in his parish of Myra. Following his death, many stories about his ministry became known throughout Christianity, to the point that Nicholas was venerated as a saint and given a feast day on December 6th. Nicholas became a famous sainted figure in Christianity and his name, acts, and feast carried across many cultures. For instance, when Columbus was exploring the New World, one of the first ports he discovered was promptly named St Nicholas. Nicholas’ story of giving and charity embodied the idea of Christianity (James 1:29) and his feast is a time for thoughtful reflection of these themes.

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Even in the massive whitewashing of relics and statuary during the Reformation, Nicholas remained a favorite figure in Christianity. His feast day was still merrily celebrated by Catholics and Protestants alike. From the medieval period through the early reformation time the stories and character of Nicholas transitioned from his Middle Eastern roots to a more Scandavian representation and the name Sinterklaas. Being fused with German paganism (through the celebration of Yule) also moved Nicholas out of the purely Christian arena and into the secular one as well. His attire and mode of transportation also shifted to reflect the cultures in which Nicholas was moved into and his story was told. He was given new names, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas. St. Nicholas remained part of the idea of Sinterklaas, but became almost unrecognizable in light of the growing mythos around this changing figure.

Yet Nicholas remained, mostly, in the representations as a charitable bishop of the Catholic Church. Only in the early 1800s, mostly through the works of Washington Irving, Sinterklaas was brought to America and given a new name: Santa Claus. Not long after this an anonymous poem, later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, titled “A Visit from St Nicholas” (later retitled “The Night Before Christmas“) captured the cultural lore in America and propelled this version of Santa Claus forward. Soon, the patron saint of travelers and merchants became the saint of the poor and needy in America. Thomas Nast, a popular cartoonist with Harper’s Weekly, soon took Santa Claus and began giving him the form which we know today. His drawing of a pipe smoking saint of giving in 1881 gave Santa much of his present day form.

Once the 20th century came, Santa was firmly embedded into the America identity for the Winter Solstice festivals. The famed American artist, Norman Rockwell, added to the growing lore around Santa with his famous covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Santa identified in numerous publications and even appropriated for military interests. Santa suddenly had a wife, though oddly no children, and plenty of other parts of the story began to evolve. Yet nothing had quite the cultural ramifications of what happened in the post World-War II era when Coca-Cola crafted a version of Santa that has lasted until today. With the massive cultural exportation the followed, Santa became a worldwide phenomenon. Soon enough, Santa Claus became as much part of the Christmas celebrations as Jesus Christ’s infancy narratives.

Children await the arrival of the Christmas season and write notes of faith, strategically given to their parents, to Santa Claus about the hope they have in his impending arrival with gifts galore. These same children are made aware that Santa is a benevolent soul who monitors their faithfulness throughout the year. We take our kids to the mall to see Santa and tell him about their hopes and dreams. Indeed, for most under the age of 12, Santa is the reason for the season.

Yet this version of Santa is much different than the Historical Santa of the fourth century. Indeed, the origins of the present day Santa-myth, though rooted in a historical figure, are much different than the actual figure they represent. So much different is this present day Santa, that one must wonder if it matches up with the historical figure who began all of this, the Bishop Nicholas in the fourth century?

The present day, popular Santa (the Santa of faith) is indeed mightily different than the Santa of history. If for no other reason, the historical Santa (St. Nicholas) is Middle Eastern and the Santa of faith (Santa Claus) is Scandinavian. Other major issues abound.

In much the same way, scholars in the field of the historical Jesus often make statements that make the historical Jesus to be as far from the Christ of faith as we see in the Santa demonstration above.

So, does the historical Santa represent a parallel narrative to the historical Jesus? Are there sufficient parallels between St Nicholas’ story and Jesus’ story in our present day churches and broader cultural narratives?

Check in tomorrow for the second, and final, part of our inquiry.


Review: Christmas – A Festival of Incarnation by Heinz

Title: Christmas: Festival of Incarnation

Author: Donald Heinz
Details: Fortress Press, MN 2010
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars…a worthwhile read.

Summary: A good text that reaches beyond the contemporary confinement

concerning Christmas and provides an erudite read of the historical and theological basis for Christmas. Central to the purpose which Heinz has for the text is indentifying Christmas in its appropriate expression as a celebration of the incarnation of Jesus. Though the text seem limited by redundancy and a continual rant against consumerism, the author does provide a readable text that is informative for the engaged reader. This is a good text for the included theological reader who desires a text which is deep in history, rich in story, and thorough in method.


Detail: At the center of this book’s aim is to delve into the annual winter festival known as Christmas to uncover the Christian practice as a celebration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Per the author’s description, “This book is a religious and historical accounting of Christmas as an ever-evolving festival of Incarnation…This book tells the amazing story of how an original religious festival celebrating the one-time Incarnation of God that is the heart of Christianity relentlessly expanded the divine investment in material culture and laid down vast deposits in the Western tradition.” (ix) To accomplish this task, Heinz lays out three sections across which he moves from text to historical expression and to culture.

Heinz keeps central that Christmas, as it stands today, provides a unique interaction with the sacred and secular that should not be ignored. However, this interaction exists at a tension where excessive consumerism has turned this distinctively Christian celebration (at least in its post-Easter adaptation) into a feast of personal indulgence instead of the reflection on the divine gift. One of the aims for Heinz is how the Church might recapture Christmas and bring it back to its profound reflection on the nature and glory of the incarnation of Christ.

The first section, “Plotting Incarnation” has two chapters which cover the biblical content and characters involved with the original Christmas story. In the first chapter, “The Original Texts of Christmas,” Heinz carries out a brief study of the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke. For the inclined reader the author’s background in mainline theology will become apparent, though it does not takeaway from any interaction with the two Gospel accounts. This background continues in the second chapter, “The Human Play of Christmas,” where the players evident in most western Nativity scenes are considered. A pleasing aspect of the text is that Heinz continually infuses poetry, literary quotations, and songs into the discussion. This allows the text to move beyond a simple historical evaluation and provides a deeper insight. As Heinz employs this method across the text it elevates the discussion for the reader which provides a text that is not common to, often vapid, reflections of this season.

Heinz’s second section, “Theater of Incarnation,” considers the historical foundations of the modern Christmas holiday. He reaches back to original solstice celebration beginning in 46 BC and providing a thorough description of the process of adoption and contextualization by the early Christians. Following this, Heinz works through the development of the holiday in the medieval and Protestant stages, providing many quotable moments. Asking the question “Can Liturgy Save Christmas?” moves the focus to whether the modern expression of Christmas can be redeemed. Ultimately this is the central question for the entire text. Heinz believes that by refocusing on the ritual will help illumine the forgotten celebration of the incarnation which Christmas represents. He moves on to discuss the act of pilgrimage as it draws believers to participate in the lived religion celebrated in Christmas. Following this is a discussion of the manger scenes and how they moved from the actual New Testament scene to the nativities which adorn many western homes. Then Heinz spends two chapters in his proposal of how the Church might re-propose Christmas as a formative festival celebrating the incarnation over and against the consumerist corruption which pervades its current expressions. At this point, Heinz begins describing the capitalist consumerism which he sees as becoming its own secular religion that takes way from the Christian point of the celebration.

The final section, “Incarnational Extravagance,” discusses the movement of the Incarnational holiday from the Church and into the world. Heinz speaks to how different secular functions of the Christmas celebration have pushed out the sacred context and allowed a corrupting consumerism to take over. He has many good points here, though citing examples of excess is often never difficult. One of the better points in this section is how Heinz takes each unique aspect of the western celebration of Christmas from trees to lights to gifts, and beyond, and tells how they came about and were then corrupted. Following this is a, seemingly mandatory, discussion of Saint Nicholas. Heinz handles this as well as other sections. There is a deep understanding of where this tradition came from in history and how it has morphed into an entirely different image. Then Heinz speaks to how we might see Christmas through visual experiences and then how we might sing of Christmas in the musical expressions. His chapter on the musical orientation of Christmas is particularly insightful. Following all of this, he then closes his text with a valediction and final thoughts. This ends up being a final discourse against the capitalism of the age and leaves the reader a bit mystified as to what the next steps are for reclaiming Christmas,

In evaluation of the text, Heinz has produced a unique work that rises above the sugary, shallow treatments that provide intellectual Milquetoast during a season which should be profoundly reflective. While the work is not beyond the grasp of the layman it also welcomes the attuned scholar. This is a difficult text to develop as it must speak into both worlds; being readable while also providing depth. However, Heinz does well to produce a text amiable to this level of discussion. Some might find the text too lofty, favoring something with a more sweet tooth satisfying glaze of cultural accommodate. There are plenty of treatments of the season that will suffice. For readers who desire to be stretched and motivated to consider the Incarnational reason for the season, Heinz has provided a text that does permit this intellectual exercise.

There are a few weak spots in the text. While I am not convinced that capitalism is entirely corrupt, I do share a concern for the secular religion of reckless consumerism which pervades the holiday. Christmas for the vast majority of people in the western world is indistinguishable as a festival of Incarnation. However, I do worry that Heinz takes his critique too far and becomes redundant. For readers who align with his theological school, the tones of liberationist theology will be soothing, for evangelicals the continual refrain against capitalism seems injurious to the point of the book. Heinz does well to show how Christmas has been both banished and welcomed by different generations of Christians. He does seem, though, to take this critique too far and, specifically in the final summation, seems a bit overbearing. This is the most troubling weak spot for the text.

Some more conservative evangelicals will be uncomfortable with Heinz’s theological method which will rub against the standard commitments they are comfortable with and cause some strain. However, if a reader can look beyond this they will find a text rich in historical and theological reflection. There are some theological points which I didn’t agree with but I still found the larger point of the text edifying and educating.

The text is replete with quotable lines, useful illustrations, and helpful historical reflections. If pastors and teachers were to take some of the illustrations and lines from the text their sermons and lessons would benefit. Overall, I believe this is a fine text that is written well, researched well, and presented in a fine format. The middle section of various pictures and art is a wonderful addition. Also, the annotated notes section (there are no endnotes or footnotes) is well researched and the author’s own annotations are rather insightful. This is a good text and would be a excellent selection for a more inclined theological reader who desires a deeper discussion on the beauty of the Incarnation in the midst of the holiday season.

Dec 2013