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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.

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It Really is Hard to Reconstruct Aspects of the Biblical Times

Last evening, well early this morning, I was reading James Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church and came across his discussion about the challenge of reconstructing the underlying forms or pre-existing offices that would have informed the earliest Christian communities. He points out that there well could be a number of traditional patterns and social attitudes that are simply unrecoverable to present day historians. He then provides this excellent illustration:

Imagine the impossible task of any future scholar trying to reconstruct the internal political history of almost any institution in America in ignorance of Robert’s Rules of Order, the format by which virtually all meetings are conducted. The wardens of a Congregationalist church in Newport, a teamsters union in Chicago, a chapter of the Disabled American Veterans in Dubuque: all of the them run their meetings pretty much the same way, Robert’s way. The book is a traditional item of community organization, entirely familiar to the nation, and for that very reason it is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned. By the same token, any familiarity which we can gain with similarly familiar antecedents of the earliest Christians will help us to construe better the way that they were following – because they were the only ways they knew of forming a community. (pg 199)

He goes on to note how the earliest Christians would have certainly looked to their common heritage and cultural milieu, specifically the synagogue.

Now, this really does capture the challenge of reconstructing the picture of the first century environment. After numerous generations of critical historical inquiry the picture is becoming increasingly clear. However, it still is missing pieces and a haze of uncertainty persists.

The underlying cultural forms that helped craft and structure authority in the earliest Christian communities are better known today than one hundred years when Sohm and Harnack (et al) were discussing the nature of charism in these early communities. Leaders in the scholarly communities that have pushed away the heavy stones of history have cleared the path and drawn on our growing knowledge of archeology and ancient understanding. Of course, the path is still clouded.

treaty-westSo to frame the continued challenge we think of the historical scholar in 1,000 years that looks back at the United States of America (or whatever country you might think of) and is attempting to work through a pile of yellowed manuscripts of official documents (since out data architecture long vanished because of its delicate state) from the wide ranging organizations as listed above. Perhaps she even has some official files from Congress. Yet Robert’s Rules does not exist in any written form. Imagine the frustration and limited horizons. If any of us could leap into her time we might be able to explain (once we learned the languages) these things better, yet we know we cannot do this.

This same problem vexes historians and biblical scholars.

We have a good picture of these times of antiquity and, perhaps more than any other people of the turn of the age (from BCE to CE) we understand Christians well. The development of the earliest Christianity wasn’t a static venture, but certainly an organic one that has many warts and scars. Yet here the Church still stands in this day (rather different I suggest) and still proclaims a Gospel so similar to the earliest Christian creed “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The picture of these earliest believers might not be in full color or complete, but it is there and increasingly made clear through the efforts of legitimate, critical scholarship. For those of us looking to add to that picture, or at least learn how to add, a robust and competent historiography (historical method) is necessary for moving forward. It isn’t something that is easily spoken of in small groups or sermons, but it is absolutely necessary for helping finish the picture to which so many have already contributed. And yet, in 500 years, the painting might be just as unfinished.

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