Santa Claus is more than a mythical figure, living in the North Pole with reindeer and happy industrious elves. The commercialization of Christmas, exacerbated by things like the obnoxious Elf on the Shelf and hissy fits over the colors and patterns of Starbucks cups, are symptoms of a culture missing the meaning and purpose of the season. The real Santa is completely in line with celebrating an authentic Christian Christmas. Modern pop culture has turned Santa into a figure almost completely removed from his origins, and it’s time to go back to the beginning and remember the real Saint Nick.
Despite the centuries since his life and the vacuous books and movies portraying him as a jolly traveling toy store, history is pretty clear on many of the details of Saint Nick’s life. None of these details involve a Christ-less Christmas, and instead tell us of a devout and generous man.
Nicholas of Myra (present-day Turkey) argued with Arius at the Council of Nicea over the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, and when Arius wouldn’t stop being a heretic, tradition holds Nicholas slapped Arius. It is short-sighted to think that theological differences were amicable until recently, and this disagreement is a perfect example that religion has been infuriating people since the beginning.
After his smack-down of a false teacher and the completion of the Nicene Creed, Saint Nick went on to be a little more calm, and it’s his later life that inspires Santa Claus. He is credited with throwing coins for dowries into the shoes of poor girls so they could get married. From this comes our modern practice of presents in stockings.
Use Santa to Enhance, Not Strip Down, Your Christmas
I’m not an anti-Santa radical, and I’m a happy proponent of letting Santa culture enhance the enjoyment and meaning of Christmas. What I can’t get behind is completely removing the religious overtones of Christmas, and even stripping all traces of the historical Santa himself from the season.
We’re at an uneasy point where culture sees the change of the seasons and craves a ritual and something to celebrate but often wants to wash away anything Christo-centric from those very same celebrations. Some parents want an a-religious figure to replace Jesus at Christmas, and when they think that figure is Santa Claus they should realize they’re sadly misinformed about the nature of Saint Nick. Lauding an atheist Santa is akin to co-opting any historical figure passionate about his beliefs and turning him into a hero devoid of the very faith that inspired them. Nicholas’s faith inspired and drove him, and it is that faith that made him interested in helping the poor and spreading cheer.
Lest you think that secular Santa as the hero and focal point of a winter holiday season is a passing fad, there are many articles and help guides for how to celebrate Christmas without Christ, guilt-free. Slate covered this, with the author saying: “But only at Christmas do so many of my friends and family also have time off, and only at Christmas can I see loved ones who have scattered across the country. Whether or not you believe in God, Christmas is a time of year when you head home or host guests, a rare occasion for the kind of togetherness that can drive you crazy, fill you with love, or both.”
This message is shared in various permutations from Gawker to Patheos, and about.com’s atheism section has a whole guide on secular Christmas. For a society increasingly concerned about appropriating others’ culture, even to the point of being ridiculous, Christianity and those who lived and died for that faith are exempted from this concern. While enjoying foods of another culture makes you insensitive, wanting to celebrate one of the holiest feast seasons of Christianity without any of the pesky faith is totally normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
Replacing Faith in God with Faith in a Mythical Being
This focus does not show a sense of peace and comfort with a holiday season, removed from religion, and the attempts to use Santa as some sort of moral lesson or guide figure shows that even those parents focused on raising their kids without a religious figure to look up to actually do encourage their kids to believe in things they can’t see.
Instead of finding that guidance and peace in an established religion, they struggle to create religion’s order and encouragement on their own, with help from commercialized products like Elf on the Shelf. Exhorting kids to behave and consider how to help others as you brainstorm elaborate (sometimes downright perverted) ways to pretend that the Advent season is just a countdown to present day is a sad shell of what the season really is. This also showcases the inability to be creative enough to just come up with an alternative compelling holiday and traditions.
It’s high time to stop searching for ways to be religious and inspire belief in the magical without actually having God in your life. Wanting the celebrations, the joy, and especially the presents without the faith misses the whole point. Christmas isn’t about deals and the joy of giving and receiving gifts, it’s about God humbling himself to be born as a baby for the benefit of all people. Saint Nick didn’t help the poor in his community because he had some random desire to, he did it because of his faith in Christ. Santa, and his presents, are a reminder of the love we show others because God loves us, and no amount of erasure will turn him into a secular figure.