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Why Our Culture Needs Santa Claus (and the Easter Bunny)

Christians didn't exactly invent Christmas, or that is, they didn't invent year-end feasts that were meant to coincide with the shortest day of the year. Rather, about three centuries after Jesus walked the earth, some church leaders decided that it was okay for Christians to have their own festivities around the winter solstice as long as they claimed to be celebrating the birthday of Jesus (which no one, technically, knows). (If you want to know more about the history of Christmas as a holiday, click here.)

Fast-forward to the 1960s and 1970s when certain religious people started insisting that Christmas only "counted" if it was about Jesus. They managed to get the Christian abbreviation "Xmas" out of our vocabulary, and they started in on Santa Claus, whom they determined to be a detraction from Baby Jesus.

Somehow they had failed to notice that the "Christmas" holiday being portrayed in the movies, on the television, and in the stores was not really the same Christmas holy day that they celebrated in their homes and churches. In spite of occasional religious trappings, it was an increasingly secular event that was becoming more about shopping than anything else. Some folks who thought they could keep Christ central to Christmas in an increasingly secular and multicultural society focused on Santa Claus as the reason that they were "losing the holiday" to those concerned more with parties and presents than with spiritual blessings. So Santa had to go. But was Santa really the "bad guy" here?

While building and maintaining Christmas-themed web sites over the last several years, I've also spent time researching and musing over various holiday traditions. Occasionally, I've changed my mind about issues that I thought I had settled in my twenties. For example, the spiritual leaders I sat under in my twenties and thirties made certain I mistrusted the secular or pre-Christian icons that "intrude" on Christmas and Easter (Santa, Christmas Trees, Easter Bunnies, colored eggs, etc.). But now I'm glad they're there. Not only do they give people who wouldn't be celebrating the religious aspect of the holidays anyway a reasonably healthy outlet; they also help take the blame for overeating, conspicuous consumption, tooth decay, and other problems with the way our culture "celebrates" holidays today.

But before I explain that last bit any further, we'll take a quick look at where "St. Nick" started out and where he stands in our culture today.

Saint Nicholas.  Click for bigger picture.How Did a Religious Figure Become a Secular Icon?

We all know that the name "Santa Claus" is a simplification of the title and name Saint Nicholas. Nicholas (A.D. 270-343) was a church leader in what is now Turkey but then was settled mostly by Greek-speaking Christians. He was a real, historical person who argued for orthodox doctrine at the first Council of Nicea and earned a reputation for helping the poor. At some point, he also gained a reputation for helping sailors. In parts of Europe, he is still best known as the "patron saint" of sailors.

Nicholas Becomes a Miracle Worker

During the middle ages, the lives of the saints were "fair game" as far as inventive fictions were concerned. Eventually Nicholas was credited with all sorts of miracles and good deeds that we don't generally connect with him today, for example resurrecting murdered children. In Western Europe, however, stories of his generosity to the poor eventually won out over the other traditions, leading to a practice of gift-giving on his feast day Dec. 6 (or on its eve, Dec. 5).

Nicholas Becomes a Gift-Giver

Here's an early representation of Sinterklaas with one Zwarte Piet.  Obviously Piet is not a willing coworker. Click for a bigger version.In various countries, the gift-giving side of St. Nicholas' expanding legend further diversified. For example, in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) used to sail up from Spain with a load of gifts and several Moorish slaves called Black Peters (Zwarte Piet). Sinterklaas would then distribute gifts from a horse, or maybe a wagon. The Zwart Piets not only helped distribute gifts, but also hit bad children with sticks. In later versions, the Zwarte Piets are free men who have just come along to help Sinterklass, and they are more friendly toward children.

Writer Peter Sedaris has famously portrayed the culture clash between American perceptions of Santa Claus and the Dutch perceptions of Sinterklass in his essay "Six to Eight Black Men." To see him reading an excerpt of this essay, click on this YouTube video. The whole essay is reprinted here

What Sedaris didn't touch on was that in Amsterdam's Sinterklaas parades (up through 2013 at least), the Zwarte Piets are portrayed by white men in "blackface" (minstrel-style makeup), which has caused some folks to call Sinterklass a "racist" tradition.

Here's a typical recent representation of Sinterklaas with Zwarte Piet.  Obviously this Piet has come along for the fun of it. Click for a bigger version.To be fair, on more recent Christmas cards, there is generally only one Zwart Piet, who seems to be a cheerful fellow slogging along with Sinterklass as they deliver presents.

If you think the whole "Black Peter" thing is a little strange, in Germany, Austria, and parts of Switzerland and Hungary, St. Nicholas is often accompanied by Krampus, a pre-Christian boogey-man with horns, who "disciplines" bad children with willow switches and the threat of being carried off to bad places in a burlap bag. In some towns they have contests to see who can mount the scariest troop of these monsters. So maybe the "Six to Eight Black Men" aren't so scary after all.

Nicholas (Sinterklaas) Comes to America

Thankfully the Zwarte Piets didn't come over with the early Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley - this country has enough things along that line to live down. But the name Sinterklaas did, along with several other Dutch traditions. T.C. Boyd's woodcuts from the 1848 printing of A Visit From St. Nicholas without mitre or robe. Click for a bigger picture.

By the early 1800s, New England's Washington Irving was busy celebrating the culture and the traditions of the Dutch settlers and their descendents (sometimes with a not-so gentle ribbing at the "Knickerbockers"). Irving and his friends were also reputedly concerned that, in New England, "Christmas" had become an excuse for a week-long drunken brawl and was anything but a family holiday. Out of that concern came a poem that redefined "St. Nick," and, indeed, Christmas, for North America.

A Poem Gives "St. Nick" a New Look and Mode of Transport

See our article on "A Visit From St. Nicholas" for a history of the poem and its effects on American culture. The case for Dutch-American influence is supported by such evidence as the names "Donner" and "Blitzen," which are probably simplified spellings of the Dutch words for thunder and lightning. Felix Darley's 1862 lithograph for A Visit From St. Nicholas. Click for a bigger picture.

But the poem also changed horses to magic reindeer, changed the wagon to a sled, dressed St. Nick in furs (without mentioning robes or mitre) and made St. Nick fat instead of skinny (a common way writers of that day portrayed joviality - speaking of stereotyping). And the poem's clever lyrics and bouncy metre made it easy to memorize and fun to read aloud.

From there it was a small jump to Thomas Nast's famous St. Nick of the late 1800s. In fact, St. Nick's popularity grew outside of Christmas boundaries. Mary Mapes Dodge, author of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, edited a magazine named after St. Nicholas. (Later issues featured more modern "St. Nicks" than you see on the early cover below.) It was the premier children's magazine for decades, attracting stories by many well-known writers of its time.

Thomas Nast's imagining of St. Nick set the standard for most of the late 1800s.  Click to see the whole picture. Mary Mapes Dodge's St. Nicholas magazine was the premier childrens magazine for decades. Art of St. Nicholas eventually came to resemble the Nast-inspired 'Santas.'  Click to see the whole picture.

Santa Claus Soap was sold year-round. Click for bigger photo.There was even a Santa Claus Soap brand, which was sold year-round.

From there it was a small jump to the Madison Avenue Santa Claus of the early 1900s.

Since then, images of Santa have been used to sell not only toy trains and Coca Cola, but also cigarettes, booze, lingerie, and worse (I excluded some examples because this is a family web page). Is it really a bad thing that our current cultural perception of Santa Claus is divorced from the Christian origins of his namesake?

This Columbia Records ad predates the Coca Cola Santa that some folks claim all modern Santas are based on.  Click to see a bigger photo. The Coca Cola Santas are so well known that some folks believe that Coke's advertising agency more-or-less invented our modern Santa Claus.  But, as the earlier Columbia ad shows, Santa looked a lot like this before Coke got into the act.  Click to see a bigger picture. Many of the best Santa ads of the 1930s-1960s sold cigarettes. Click to see a bigger picture.
This Interwoven Sock ad also predates the classic Coca Cola Santa that some folks claim all modern Santas are based on.  Click to see a bigger picture. This ad appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, 1936.  Click to see a bigger photo. Santa is instantly recognizable even without his red suit.  Madison Avenue loves him because he doesn't charge royalties.  Click to see a bigger photo.

Santa Gets a "New Backstory"

While some conservative groups were bemoaning the fact that Santa is now a more popular icon of Christmas than the Nativity, Hollywood writers were giving him an "origin story" that had nothing to do with religion. In one version, Santa started out as a jolly (human) craftsman who made wonderful toys for the children of his town. Eventually the elves (or angels or other supernatural beings) recognized what a wonderful person he was and made him immortal so he could bless all the children of the world. One of the first times I saw this "interpretation" was in the 1985 Dudley Moore vehicle Santa Claus The Movie (not on my list of best Christmas films). At the time I thought that Santa's reinvented "backstory" was the "lamest" part of the movie, and that was saying something.

Similar "backstories" have come up since, in other contexts and media. As a Christian, I felt "ripped off" at first by this attempt to divorce Santa completely from his religious origins. But in retrospect, Santa's image has been used in recent years to encourage overspending and conspicuous consumption, and to sell some pretty objectionable stuff. So maybe taking him completely out of the "religious" column - at least in this country - is better for the minority who would still like to think of Christmas as a religious observance.

By the way, I don't mind the backstory rewrite in Tim Allen's 1994 The Santa Clause. In that movie, Santa is a sort of magical franchise that gets passed on to the closest male adult when the old Santa dies. Compared to the "good-toymaker-made-immortal" version this one is at least clever.

What are the Alternatives?

As I hinted before, the Santa myth gives marketeers imagery to use in hyping their overpriced merchandise as this year's "must-have" Christmas gift. When you see all the ways that Santa and his related iconography (sleigh bells, Santa hats, etc.) are abused, imagine what it would be like if, say, Baby Jesus or the Holy Family were being used this way. I shudder at the thought.

Christkind - a magical Baby Jesus who could move easily through space and time - existed in legends and fairy tales long before Martin Luther's suggestion that he bring gifts instead of St. Nicholas. This postcard illustration puts the Christkind in the manger so you know exactly who he is, but it also puts a Christmas tree behind him so that you know he's the Lutheran-approved version. Click for bigger photo.As one example, Martin Luther is given credit for asking Protestant parents to claim that the "Christ Child" ("Christkind" in German) brings the presents instead of St. Nicholas. Many folks give Luther credit for this notion of Jesus coming back as a child to do good works, work miracles, or bring goodies in what are essentially fairy tales that defy even Luther's theology. But Luther was only choosing one tradition over another.

Remember what I said about the lives of the saints once being "fair game" for inventive fiction? During the middle ages, the "Christ Child" was also "fair game" as far as inventive fictions were concerned. Fantasy tales that included theophanies (miraculous and unexpected appearances) of the "Christ Child" abounded. For instance, the "Christ Child" appears as a magical child in St. Christopher's story, which predates Luther by centuries.

Now, I'm not bothered by random new story lines about Santa - by now he's an entirely fictitious figure. But as a Bible-believing Christian, I'm not all that thrilled by fantasy stories about "Baby Jesus" traveling beyond space and time. I would be far less thrilled, though, if "Baby Jesus" appeared in any of the magazine advertisements above. For all of his imagined faults, Santa has certainly "taken one for the team."

This early Christmas postcard shows Christkindl and St. Nicholas delivering presents together.  Click to see the whole postcard.Today in several European countries, Christmas cards show the "Christkindl" ("Small Christ Child") giving presents, often riding or leading a horse or donkey. Sometimes he accompanies that country's version of St. Nicholas and an angel. I've even seen him accompanied by St. Nicholas and a Zwart Piet. As weird as that combination may seem, imagine if our modern Santa myth didn't exist and images of the "Christ Child" were being used to hawk merchandise and worse.

Note: In many places, the Christkind or Christkindl ("Little Christ Child") figure is no longer seen as an appearance of the Christ Child as much as an angel that "represents" the Christ Child. Some versions even have wings.

Poster for Chicago's Christkindlemarket, 2013.  Click to to the festival's web page.In addition, so many pageants and village parades over the years have cast young, longhaired (usually blonde) girls as the Christkindl, that in some festivals, such as Chicago's annual Christkindlmarket, the Christkindl is always female, and not always exactly a child.

And if that diversion from what you might expect wasn't strange enough, the name Christkindl has crossed the Atlantic as "Kris Kringle," but it is used, not in relation to the "Christ Child," but as another name for you-know-who.

Santa as the Butt of Jokes

One more thing Santa has protected our religious icons from is crude humor. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" or Bad Santa don't bother me nearly as much as they would if they were lampooning the Nativity instead of the Santa Claus myth. Other examples are too numerous to mention, but I'll spell out one that gives the general idea.

A few years ago, a Shrek Christmas special came out, and I watched it while I was working on something else, just to see if it was worth keeping on the DVR. The premise was that Shrek wanted a quiet Christmas Eve so he could read "The Christmas Story" to the kids.

Now I know what "The Christmas Story" is - so does everyone who's ever seen "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Charlie Brown is on the verge of losing it when Linus, dressed in his shepherd costume, quotes at length from the second chapter of Luke.

    And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

    And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them,

    Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
    For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
    And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
    And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
    Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

I couldn't help being a little apprehensive, when Shrek, in between jokes about flatulence, dirty diapers, and worse, kept talking about reading "The Christmas Story" to the kids. But when the big moment came, what he recited was a parody of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." It started out "T'was the night before Christmas/Not a swamp-rat did creep." The next line was a flatulence joke, and things went downhill from there, so that's all of the parody I will quote here.

How did I feel about Shrek's producers mixing up "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and THE Christmas Story? Fine. Once again, Santa takes one for the team. With apologies to the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," I'd much rather see Shrek belch his way through that text than through the second chapter of Luke. Yet if it wasn't for Santa, what would Shrek's writers have chosen to lampoon?

This Easter postcard shows an anthropomorphic rabbit who is painting Easter eggs being interrupted by a little girl passing him a note. Personally I think it's charming.  Click for bigger picture.Why Did I Mention the Easter Bunny?

Because the same principle applies. Easter Eggs and the Easter Bunny himself trace back to Christian origins (medieval Greek "Orthodox" Christians and 16th-century German Lutherans, respectively). But people have celebrated spring festivals since the dawn of civilization. Just having a significant Christian feast that is (appropriately) celebrated in the same season doesn't mean that people are going to start focusing exclusively on religious past-times and practices.

So let folks who don't really care about the Resurrection focus on the less "spiritual" icons and hide eggs and eat candy and focus on all of those other secular or semi-secular trappings. To them, that's what Easter is all about.

And you won't change their minds by pressuring businesses to replace chocolate bunnies with chocolate statues of Jesus or something. In fact, you'll make things worse.

Conclusion

Two times a year - Christmas, and Easter - America's secular and religious worlds align (collide might be a better term). Through much of my life, conservative Christians have been wringing their hands because non-Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter for the "wrong" reasons, or they do it the "wrong way." A few radio and television announcers who demonstrate lots of religiosity (and very little charity) insist that if we're serious about our faith, we'll take it upon ourselves to "straighten people out," especially harried store clerks and other folks who, inevitably, need compassion far more than they need confrontation.

Here's an idea: The next time you're tempted to tell somebody the one true "real" meaning of Christmas or Easter, try saying instead, "Do you know why Christmas (or Easter) has special meaning for me and my family?" You just might get a listen.

And when the rabbit or the big guy in the red and white suit seem to be getting all the attention, thank the Lord that they are - the real Jesus doesn't need that kind of attention.

God grant you and your loved ones grace and a spirit of generosity and service this Christmas season.

Paul D. Race, Family Christmas Online


If you have any corrections or comments you would like to make about this page, please contact me and I will be glad to hear from you. God bless - Paul

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