By Elysia McColley
There is no question that the holiday we know as Christmas has quite a few pagan elements running through it. In fact, when we speak about the “Yuletide season,” we are referring directly to a pagan holiday – Yule – of the ancient Norse and Germanic peoples. Christmas trees have some, though not all, roots in pagan practices, and Santa Claus himself has many pagan elements, such as elves and magical flying reindeer. Some Christians ardently argue that Christians should not celebrate the holiday at all because it is thoroughly pagan.
Yet there are other Christians who insist on saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” because they believe that Christmas is and always has been a Christian holiday. At stake are not pagan rituals but rather the encroachment of secularization and commercialization, along with widespread acceptance of other religions’ holidays.
So is Christmas actually a Christian holiday?
What I want to demonstrate to you over the next few articles is that Christmas is a Christian holiday, but not all of the elements and traditions associated with it are Christian. We’ll start by looking at Santa Claus, a pseudo-Christian figure that merges pagan ideas with Medieval hagiography of Saint Nicholas.
Who Was Saint Nicholas?
The easy answer is that we don’t really know. Most of what we know about him comes from hagiographic sources – hagiography refers to stories about saints and saint-like figures – that contain so many myths and legends that they are historically unreliable. What we can most reasonably ascertain is that he was born in Turkey – then known as Asia Minor – in the fourth century and was a particularly devout individual. He was famous for his care of the poor and often gave gifts to those in need.
Nicholas became bishop of the city of Myra, where he continued charitable acts towards the poor and eventually gave away all of his money. Some evidence suggests that he may have been present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and been signatory to the Nicene Creed. He died on December 6, so this date is remembered as Saint Nicholas’ Day or the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Beyond this, the stories about him are likely so embellished as to be untrustworthy.
From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus
After his death, Nicholas became the most revered saint of the Medieval Church, both Orthodox and Roman Catholic. As his fame spread, so did the legends about him. In one legend, he brought three dismembered children back to life. In another, he appeared to sailors facing a deadly storm and calmed the wind and waves. While acts such as bringing the dead back to life and calming the wind and waves sounds a lot like Jesus, Nicholas’ hagiography began to incorporate pagan elements, as well.
One of those pagan elements is the long beard, which was associated with the Norse god Odin (Germanic Woden). During the Yuletide season, Odin flew through the air on a magical horse, what would come down to us as Santa’s sleigh. While Santa’s long robe may have some resonance with the bishop’s apparel that the real Saint Nicholas wore, it also resonates with the cloak that Odin wore. And those elves, which first became associated with Santa Claus in the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” derive from pagan beliefs.
Martin Luther, the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, wanted to end the Catholic practice of revering saints, including Saint Nicholas. In the Netherlands, on the night before The Feast of Saint Nicholas, children would leave shoes outside so that Saint Nicholas – known in Dutch as Sinterklaas – would leave presents inside them. Martin Luther told the children that the Christkindle, or Christ Child, was leaving them presents. He also moved the celebration to what was believed to be the date of Christ’s birth, December 25. Unfortunately, the idea did not last, as Christkindle took the form Kris Kringle. Kris Kringle became another version of Sinterklaas. And Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.
Santa Claus is a figure that is heavily imbued with pagan elements and looks nothing like the fourth-century bishop who attended the Council of Nicaea. Some people argue that Santa Claus is a modern version of Odin, and they are not entirely wrong for doing so. But the paganization of Saint Nicholas does not mean that Christmas is not a Christian holiday.
Redeeming the Culture
The good news for Christians who enjoy the holiday season is that Christmas is not about Santa Claus. Pagan or not, the holiday is not about him or the gifts that he supposedly brings, or even about the gifts that Saint Nicholas gave to the poor. The holiday is about celebrating the coming of Emmanuel, Jesus Christ.
Many nonbelievers are more open to talking about Jesus during the Christmas season than they are at other times of the year. Just the fact that they can walk into a department store and hear a song celebrating the newborn King can pique their interest in learning more. Children in non-Christian families can watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on public broadcasting and hear the nativity story, as Linus reads straight out of Luke 2.
Instead of condemning the holiday as pagan, as followers of Jesus who want more people to know Him, we should appreciate the opportunity for evangelization that it presents. We shouldn’t trivialize the pagan elements associated with Christmas, nor should we dismiss the holiday completely. Instead, we need to redeem the culture by being thoroughly Christian and celebrating Christmas in a thoroughly Christian way.
None of this is to say that Christmas is celebrated in the Bible (it isn’t) or that Jesus was born on December 25 (He wasn’t). In the next article, we’ll look at the particular date on which Christmas is celebrated and the pagan feasts associated with it.