Christmas has been taken over by Santa Claus. Sure, there’s the occasional recognition that Christmas is also a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but that tends to be lost in the battle for sales and the mad rush for that just-right gift.
I’m no Scrooge who says, “Bah, humbug!” to Christmas. Far from it. There are many things I enjoy about Christmas. It’s the competition that’s been created between Santa and Jesus that troubles me.
It’s become something like a boxing match. In the red corner is Santa. In the white corner (white seems somehow appropriate, rather than boxing’s traditional blue corner) is Jesus. The match is heavily weighted against Jesus during the Christmas season.
Of course, you’ll find a sign here and there, a bumper sticker, perhaps, proclaiming that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But come September, the world’s marketing people are already introducing their Christmas campaigns. Shops are stocking up for what they hope is a rush. And Christmas music is dusted off.
There’s so much attention to the Santa side of Christmas; so little about Jesus.
In the red corner
Saint Nicholas of Myra (in Turkey), a fourth-century Greek bishop, became the Christian inspiration for Santa Claus. He was known for his generous gift-giving to the poor. He’s best remembered for presenting the three daughters of a poor but pious Christian with dowries so they could marry instead of becoming prostitutes to support themselves.
He was generally pictured as a thin, bearded man wearing bishop’s robes. The Santa Claus of today is quite different, and, along the way, he’s picked up a variety of pagan, folklore, and modern influences.
Charles Dickens’s classic, A Christmas Carol, has him as the “Ghost of Christmas Present,” who takes Scrooge through busy London streets on Christmas morning and sprinkles the essence of Christmas on its citizens. The Santa in the book and of that era wore a long green coat.
The 1823 publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) was a defining moment for Santa. Here he’s described as driving a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer that all have names. The sleigh is full of toys and lands on rooftops so Santa can climb down chimneys and fill stockings.
He’s pictured as a jolly old elf with ruddy cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry. His health habits come into question because he’s a pipe smoker with a round belly “that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.” This became the classic description.
In 1863, a drawing of Santa by the American cartoonist Thomas Nast appeared in Harper’s Weekly. This depiction set the trend for the modern Santa—including the red clothing.
So Santa is a happy gift-giver who somehow gets down chimneys on Christmas Eve with a bag full of gifts—impossible, of course, in many of today’s homes that have no chimneys. He’s a cuddly character, who is sometimes used as a threat to children to get them to behave.
“Our jolly old Saint Nicholas reflects our culture to a T,” says Carol Jean Swanson in a 1992 edition of Mothering, “for he is fanciful, exuberant, bountiful, over-weight, and highly commercial. He also mirrors some of our highest ideals: childhood purity and innocence, selfless giving, unfaltering love, justice, and mercy. . . .
“The problem is that, in the process, he has become burdened with some of society’s greatest challenges: materialism, corporate greed, and domination by the media. Here, Santa carries more in his baggage than toys alone!”
In the white corner
A few Christians refuse to celebrate Christmas. They claim, and with good reason, that December 25 can’t be the date of Jesus’ birth. An obvious problem with the date is that it’s midwinter in the northern hemisphere—too cold for shepherds to be in the fields.
There’s no record of the true date, and no consistency in dates suggested. For instance, around A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote that some people in Egypt celebrated Jesus’ birth on May 20; and a calendar of feasts from A.D. 243 gives March 28 as the date for the Nativity.
The December 25 date is further discounted by the fact that this is the ancient date of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, which links it to paganism and the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti—“the birthday of the unconquered sun.”
However, the date is not nearly as important as the event, whenever it’s celebrated. The birth of Jesus, as presented in the Bible, is God’s greatest gift to humankind.
Here’s how Jesus Himself described it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The apostle Paul described Jesus in terms that were adopted by creeds: “[He] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).
December 25 or not, this is something far bigger than Christmas.
Santa versus Jesus
Red corner, white corner—who should win?
Notice the attraction of both. There is an attraction in the wide-eyed innocence of children at Christmastime and the act of gift-giving. And there’s something magical about Santa, who is a doting grandfather figure.
Then there’s the attraction of the Baby in the manger. At one level, He’s part of the magic of Christmas—the story of the Baby born among the animals in the stable because there’s no room for Him in the inn.
At another level, it’s the greatest demonstration of love the world has witnessed. Love enough for angels to sing. To have shepherds run to the stable. To have wise men bow low in worship.
Their impacts differ. Santa has been molded by marketers from Saint Nicholas the gift-giver into the saint of commercialism. He can’t separate himself from the shopping frenzy his appearance now encourages.
Jesus’ message, His challenges, and His claims, haven’t changed. “Love your enemies”; “Do to others what you would have them do to you”; “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”; “I am the light of the world”; “I am the resurrection and the life”; “Go and make disciples of all nations”; “I am coming soon” (Matthew 5:44; 7:12; John 3:3; 8:12; 11:25; Matthew 28:19; Revelation 22:20).
Santa is about gift-giving, Jesus is the Gift given. Santa drives sales; Jesus saves souls. Santa encourages selfishness; Jesus demonstrates selflessness.
An editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897, edition of the New York Sun responded to a question asked by an eight-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon. Her friends had told her that Santa Claus didn’t exist.
In his response, the editor used the now famous line “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” “How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus,” he argued. “It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”
“Not believe in Santa Claus? You might as well not believe in fairies!”
This may make a good answer for an eight-year-old, but it wouldn’t work for her as an 18-year-old. There is no Santa Claus.
The 1947 movie classic Miracle on 34th Street (redone in 1994), involves Christmastime events and those who do and don’t believe in Santa. It calls for people to have “faith” in Santa. Faith is defined as “believing what you know is not so.”
That definition fits Santa.
But it doesn’t fit Jesus. There’s no doubting His historicity. There was a real person named Jesus born, who was in the real village of Bethlehem, who lived in the real town of Nazareth, and walked the real streets of Jerusalem.
Significantly, the New Testament, which focuses on Jesus’ life and the meaning of His life, was written within the memory of those who knew Him. Having faith in Jesus is a faith that’s based on the life and teachings of a real Person.
There’s a hope difference. The children who line up to tell their Christmas wishes have December 25 in mind. That’s when they hope their wishes will be fulfilled. And even if they get their wishes, they can be so temporary. Some toys don’t survive the day! The only things that Santa can promise are exactly that—things.
Compare this to the words of the apostle Peter: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). There’s no comparison.
Finally, there’s availability. Santa only appears briefly in a store near you in December. And that’s for information gathering. He only acts on Christmas Eve.
Jesus, the resurrected One, lives still. Ever living, ever present, He says, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). That’s a promise.
For one month of the year, Santa may dominate, but it’s no contest— not really. Not when you look at the evidence. The Winner is in the white corner.