THE EVOLUTION OF THE SANTA CLAUS MYTH
Compiled by Pastor David L. Brown, Ph.D.
(I have gathered this information about St. Nicholas/Santa Claus over the past decade. This material is in rough form and was originally intended to be edited and become a part of a book I am planning to publish in the future.)
I collect old books. One of my prize possessions is an 1847 copy of The Original Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. I often go back to my old books because I know that they have not been edited line up with the "political correctness" of our day. In preparation for this research, I looked up the word myth in the 1847 Webster's. Note the definition. Myth --A fictious or fanciful narrative, having an analogy more or less remote from some real event.
That definition certainly describes the Santa Claus Myth. You see, this "Jolly Old Elf" never existed. How did we get him then? Well, that is where the mythology comes in. There is a tiny tidbit of fact covered my mounds and mounds of fantasy that has been developed into the modern day Santa Claus. As best I can, I am going to show you how this myth has developed over the years.
This section of my research report is going to be the smallest section because not much is known about Nicholas. The information herein ascribed as "factual" in reality is based on tradition. For instance, there is a question as to the name of Nicholas' mother and father as well as at what age he was appointed "bishop" of Myra. But, here is what I have been able to find. Epyhanus and his wife Johane were well to do land owners. They owned a large section of farm land along the northern shores of the Mediterranean sea in a town called Pataras. About 200 years earlier the Apostle Paul had brought Christianity into the country then called Lycia, which is a small part of Turkey today. Though Epyhanus and Johane were wealthy people they were sad people because they had been married 30 years and yet had no children. They prayed and prayed that God might allow them to have a child. That pray was answered some place between 270 -- 280 AD. when Nicholas was born. They gave him that name because it means "victorious" and in deed, God had given the victory over bareness. Right from the start many hailed the birth as a "miracle." I do not dispute the fact that the birth of Nicholas was unusual because Johane was probably in her late 40's or early 50's when Nicholas was born. But there is a difference between unusual, and miraculous! (I might add, there is a lady in my church who gave birth when she was in her late 40's.)
Let's move on to another bit of information that, as best as I can tell, is at least rooted in fact, that being the Nicholas was made a "bishop" in Myra when he was very young. In fact, tradition identifies him as the Boy Bishop. Further, he was known for his kindness and generosity and many mythical stories were woven around that theme. He died on December 6 in either 345 or 352 A.D.
You will note that one thing is missing. When did Nicholas become "Saint" Nicholas? I have researched this question, even to the point of calling Marquette University and I can come up with on date for the official Roman Catholic canonization of "Saint" Nicholas. What I have found is this. In 1087 AD. an Italian merchant retrieved what he supposed to be the bones of Nicholas and brought them to Bari, Italy. In 1095 AD. Pope Urban the II dedicated the church of San Nicola in Bari. Could it be that Saint Nicholas is not really a Catholic Saint? One author says, "the recognition of his sainthood was a popular process taking place well before the formal procedures of canonization had become established."
It really does not matter if you are declared a saint after you are dead! What matters is, if you are a saint in this life. Here is some information on being a Biblical "saint." "Saint" means one who is set apart for God. The words "saint," "holy," and "sanctify" are from the same Greek words. In the N.T. the term "saint" is applied to all true Christians, not merely to believers who are unusually pure (Ac. 9:13,32,41; 26:10; Ro. 8:27; 12:13; 15:25,31; 16:2,15; 1 Co. 6:1,2; 14:33; 16:1,15; 2 Co. 8:4; 9:1,12; 13:13; Ep. 1:1; Ph. 1:1; Col. 1:2,4; Phile. 7; He. 6:10; 13:24). Even the carnal Christians at Corinth were called saints (2 Co. 1:1). Christians are not saints because they are sinless; they are saints because they have a sinless Savior and He has removed their sin from before God (Re. 1:5,6; 1 Pe. 2:9,10).
THE EVOLUTION OF SANTA CLAUS
Everyone likes a good story. When I was growing up I liked the tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Superman was "my hero" also. That's what happened with "Saint" Nicholas too.
As I mentioned, right from the start mythical stories began to circulate about Nicholas, like the one about his first bath. It was reported that when he was first bathed in a tub that he stood up and raised his armsas if praising Godand then refused to take milk from his mother until sundown on Wednesdays and Fridays because these were fasting days in the church. I have an idea what happened. The bath water was probably cold and the child wanted out! As for the breast feeding issue, I'm a skeptic.
Nicholas was a generous man. That seems to be true. But it seems that Nicholas was the "Superman" of the day. One story claims that he provided money for three poor young ladies to get married. One had decided she was going to go sell herself as a prostitute to get money so that her other two sisters could get married. Nicholas came to her rescue in the nick of time and secretly provided the money. From there on there the stories of St Nicholas become, in my estimation, even more fantasy oriented. In a book called the GOLDEN LEGEND published in 1483 (the book was taken from manuscripts written before 872 A.D.) 21 miracles are attributed to Nicholas. The most popular being bring three children back to life who had been butchered by an Inn keeper for the purpose of serving them as meat for meals. This story has several variations. Another tale is about a lady to who is so excited about going to see the Archbishop that she left her baby in a tub of water over the fire. Upon remembering, she appealed to Nicholas and the baby was found unhurt, playing in the bubbling water.
These stories make for entertaining reading but they indeed are fantasy and far from the realm of reality and therefore of no real value.
In the 1100's French Nuns began to give gifts in the name of Saint Nicholas on St. Nicholas Eve (Dec. 5th). Soon all over Europe this custom was adopted.
In 1150 A.D. a poem was written by a Norceman named Wace or Guace. In that poem he ascribes 21 miracles to St. Nicholas. Six of the most frequently repeated miracles focus on 1)religious acts in infancy, 2) dowries for three maidens 3) being chosen a bishop in childhood 4) saving three butchered school boys 5)saving ship and sailors from a storm 6) providing grain during famine.
Around 1300 A.D. the pagan God Odin (Also called Wotan from where we get our word Wednesday) got mixed in with St. Nicholas. He rode an eight legged white horse through the night skies, his long WHITE BEARD blowing in the wind, as he lead away the souls of those that had died that year. This took place at the time of winter Solstice, December 21. Before this time Saint Nicholas was pictured with a dark beard.
Around this same time another piece of paganism was added to the mythology. The belief that Santa Claus enters the house through the chimney developed from an old Norse legend. The Norse believed that the pagan goddess Hertha appeared in the fireplace and brought good luck to the home.
In Mediaeval times many other occult elements were incorporated into the St. Nicholas myths. For instance In parts of the Alps, to this day ghosts of the field cleared the way for St. Nicholas. Behind them came a man wearing a goat's head, and a masked demon with a birch switch.
As a result of the Reformation there was a backlash against Saint Nicholas myths.
In 1651 the Colonial Massachusetts Legislature pass a law that said --
"Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmass...either by forbearing labor, feasting, or in any other way...every such person so offending shall pay a fine for each offense of five shillings to the county."
That law remained in force till about 1681. There were other similar laws, usually in areas where Bible believing groups exerted strong influence. Groups like the Pilgrims, Puritans and Calvinists Protestants. Historically Bible believing Christians have discouraged the secular celebration of Christmas. Some has gone so far as to label the Christless Xmas as "FOOLTIDE" and "ROMISH RAGS", (the latter because the Roman Catholic influence of "Saint Nicholas," partying and gift giving).
Slowly Saint Nicholas evolved into the omniscient observer of children's behavior. Good behavior was rewarded with gifts for Christmas and bad behavior with switches, to be used on their back sides. No one is exactly sure how the commemoration of Saint Nicholas' death (December 6th 343 A.D. got moved to December 25th, the day we celebrate the Birth Of Christ). I do know that the Calvinist Protestants of Northern Germany had insisted that gifts be brought as a part of the celebration of Christmas instead of St. Nicholas Day.
Santa Claus got his biggest boost in America from a seminary professor, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore. He taught Oriental and Greek Literature at General Theological Seminary in New York City. At age 43 he had six children. Moore had purchased the first American Book about secular Christmas. It was called A NEW YEAR'S PRESENT FOR THE LITTLE ONES FORM FIVE TO TWELVE." It inspired him to write his poem called "A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS, OR SANTA. CLAUS" for his children. He read it to them at the dinner table on Christmas Eve, 1822. We know the poem better as "T'WAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS". The following year it was; published in the Troy New York Sentinel anonymously. In fact, it was not until 1837 that Moore allowed his name to be used in connection with the poem.
In New York City during the era of the 1830's and 1840's the influence of Bible believing Protestants was so strong against the NONRELIGIOUS CELEBRATION OF CHRISTMAS on December 25th that SANTA CLAUS, his reindeer, gift giving, partying and the whole kitenkabootle was moved to NEW YEARS DAY. The New York Mirror's issue of January 2, 1844 published "The Night Before Christmas" with these opening words..."Twas the night before New Year..." and ended with "...Happy New Year to all and to all a Goodnight." Gradually our country came to accept the secular celebration of Christmas. In 1836 the Alabama legislature passed a law making Christmas a "legal" state holiday, making it the first state to recognize Christmas as something more than just a religious holiday.
From then on, Santa was in the drivers seat. Famous American Cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized Santa in Harper' Bazaar from the 1860's to the 1880's. George Webster contributed the idea that Santa's headquarters was at the North Pole. Christ and Santa were further confused by Thomas Nast and Christmas Card publisher Louis Prang who pictures the Christ Child and Santa together. In the 1880's and 90's.
NOTES ON Virginia O'Hanlon
It is tragic, but the truth is the majority of Americans are going to MISS Christmas this year. Actually, this situation has been happening for a long time, but has gotten progressively worse since just before the turn of the century. Let me illustrate what I mean.
Dr. O'Hanlon lived with his family in a comfortable home on the northern edge of the West side of Manhattan. In addition to being a physician he was a consultant to the New York City Police Department. In 1897 his eight year old daughter Virginia was discussing Santa Claus with her friends, who told her there really was no Santa. She decided to take the matter up with her father. She went to him and asked the facts. When she approached him he was a little evasive on the subject' but suggested she write to the Question and Answer department of THE NEW YORK SUN because when the SUN says something, it is so. So Virginia wrote this letter...
I am eight years old. Some of my friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, If you see it in the SUN, it's so. Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Every evening for many, many days Virginia could not wait to get the paper and see if her letter had been answered. She had no idea that former Civil War correspondent Mr. Francis P. Church was assigned the task of answering her letter. He was an unknown editorial writer for the Sun. Frequently he was assigned religious topics to comment on editorially. He tended to treat religious topics with some skepticism. says E. Willis Jones. He thought how to answer Virginia quite some time. finally, on September 21, 1897 his unsigned editorial appeared in the New York SUN. He wrote in part...
...your little friends are wrong! They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exists, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus?...
Not believe in Santa Claus? You might as well not believe in friends!...Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there...
No Santa Claus? Thank God, he lives and he lives forever. Thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
(the editorial was Published unsigned)
Virginia missed Christmas that year and perhaps for the rest of her life. She died in 1971, but often told people the SUN editorial was a high point and inspiration in her life. She urged others to remember Francis Church who wrote it because his message carried the philosophy of hope and love.. To be sure, his message has been preached far and wide through the years. The SUN reran the editorial annually until it went out of business in 1949. People treat it like gospel. It has been reprinted by thousands of newspapers and magazines around the world. Not only that, but from 1897 to 1949 it was translated into at least 20 languages and after that, many more followed. It is still being reprinted!
So what's so wrong with that? you might ask. Over the years, Christmas has become increasingly cluttered up with so much excess paraphernalia that people miss the true meaning of Christmas -- Christ.
2 Timothy 4:2-4 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; 4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.