Monthly Archives: December 2011

Does Santa Claus Believe?

Santa Claus (Montreal Gazette)

The origin of Santa Claus and its relation to Christianity are a curious tale and go back further than the legendary Saint Nicholas. The traditions associated with “Santa Claus” began in the early 19th century and included a jolly fellow who dwells at the North Pole with elves, travels the world through the air on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer on Christmas Eve, and delivers presents to children if they have been good or coal if they have been bad. The Santa Claus tradition has provided an opportunity for children to let their imaginations wander and experience an excitement that only young innocence could express.

Sinterklaas (Wikipedia.org)

The name Santa Claus is a derivative of the Dutch term Sinterklaas, which was popular in the Netherlands and northern Europe during the Middle Ages. Sinterklaas is described as a stately man with white hair and long beard, who rides on roof tops with a white horse, carries a staff, dwells among helpers with black faces (Zwarte Pieten), gives candy to good children and punishes the bad ones. The Sinterklaas annual feast was celebrated on December 5th or 6th to commemorate Saint Nicholas. This annual feast included gift-giving, costume-wearing and alcoholic indulgence—hardly a way to honor a saint. This celebration was somewhat suppressed by Protestant faiths in the 16th and 17th centuries, later to emerge more secular in the 19th century as “Santa Claus” and celebrated on December 25th instead! The many Hollywood productions in the late 19th century gave the Santa Claus tradition such momentum and helped instill a new Christmas spirit in modern culture.

Saint Nicholas (Wikipedia.org)

Sinterklaas was based on Saint Nicholas, who lived in the 4th century and was bishop of Myra. These are the only real facts on Saint Nicholas; the rest is legendary. Legend has it that Saint Nicholas was a guardian for the common folks, including mariners, bakers, merchants and children and it is alleged that he performed miracles and gave gifts on December 6th, the date when the church celebrated his feast. Many Christians often point to the good work that Saint Nicholas did when discussing the roots of Santa Claus, but the roots go farther back still.

Odin (Wikipedia.org)

Sinterklaas, as he was known in northern Europe and Scandinavia, is strikingly similar to the ancient Norse god, Odin, the leader of souls. In fact, a strong case could be made that Sinterklaas was the Christianization of the god Odin and related festivals such as Winter Solstice and Yule. The myths of Odin state that he rode in the sky on a grey horse with eight legs whose name was Sleipnir, carried a spear, dwelt with ravens and would place candy in children’s boots. If not immediately apparent, these descriptors resemble Santa riding in the sky on his sleigh, being pulled by eight reindeer and filling children’s stockings with toys.

In Norse tradition, Odin was believed to have been the leader of the gods and creator of the world and mankind. In Germanic tribes, he was known as Woden, for whom a special day was assigned to honor him, Woden‘s Day, otherwise known as Wednesday. (Wednesday is a day commonly chosen for timing occult practices today, a topic to be discussed later.) Odin was known as the god of wisdom, poetry and magic, from which we get the “magic of Christmas”. One could argue that he was a form of Satan, the archenemy of Jesus Christ, who has attempted to replace the Savior even from ancient times. Interestingly, Tacitus the Roman historian in the 1st century associated Odin to the Roman god Mercury.

Hermes (Wikipedia.org)

Mercury (or Hermes in Greek mythology) was the son of Jupiter (or Zeus in Greek mythology), a guardian of merchants and thieves, a god of trade and abundance, and the leader of souls to Hades. He was also known as a messenger of the gods for his eloquence. The Holy Bible even attests to the false beliefs in the god Mercury just after the time of Christ’s resurrection.

And when the multitude saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voice, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercury, because he was the chief speaker. Acts 14:11-12 (ASV)

The culture at that time was teeming with the worship of other gods and the practice of pagan rituals, so the origins of Santa Claus extend at least as far back as the time of Christ’s birth. Should we simply dismiss and ignore mythology as old folklore? Certainly not, for it has substantially influenced our culture today! (Topics on the ancient gods and how they relate to the holy scriptures and modern culture will be explored in later articles.)

If one does a search of “Santa Claus” and “Christian” on the Internet, he/she will find a slew of conspiracy theories that “Santa” is just “Satan” misspelled and that practicing any activities related to Santa Claus is evil. This is an extreme position to hold on the topic! To believe such opinions, one should also avoid many of the other Christmas traditions including, feasts, gift-giving, drinking, hanging mistletoe, adorning a Christmas tree—these practices can all be considered pagan to some degree. Santa is only a god if he is venerated as one.

As far back as the first few decades A.D., Christians lived in pagan cultures and among those who did not believe in Christ. These early Christians were wise in dealing with non-Christians, the pagan customs and the proliferation of pagan religions. The early Christians introduced the “Christ Message“ to the population by celebrating historical events relating to Christ at the same time as the major pagan festivals were celebrated. Many people accepted the Christian message simply because wise Christians used these opportunities to educate the population in a practical way. The early Christians were very secure in their faith and broke away from the strict rules of traditional religious laws. An activity that did not affront a Christian’s conscience or compromise his/her faith, was not considered forbidden; it was not a sin and still isn’t.

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 1 Corinthians 8:1-8 (NIV)

However, we must agree that Santa Claus has become the symbol of gluttonous consumer spending in our culture today: we are littered with propaganda to consider what we want, rather than how we can bless others. Filling a void with material gifts will only lead to disappointment once the Christmas season passes. For the Christian, it is important that he/she does not let the idea of Santa promote the pursuit of material possessions. For the non-believer, it is important that he/she is not distracted by a false Christmas legend or deceived by an elusive spirit of the season. The Santa Claus tradition should really be a practical opportunity to reflect on the history of Christmas and its true meaning.

Of more concern is that the celebration associated with Santa Claus (formerly Sinterklaas) when he was reintroduced in the early 19th century, was moved from the original date of December 6th, which marked the annual honorary feast of Saint Nicholas, to December 25th, which had been earlier chosen to identify the date of Christ’s birth. (The actual date of Christ’s birth is one of considerable debate, which may be discussed later.) The date is not the relevant factor, but the event itself. This change put the tradition of Santa Claus in direct competition with the true Christmas story. Interestingly, the Scofield Reference Bible was published in the same time period and introduced new concepts (such as the Rapture) to the long-standing Christian beliefs up until that point in history.

The goal of this review is not to get too religious with the tradition and abolish all things Santa, but to understand the tradition’s most basic roots and how it has influenced our Christian culture. Ultimately, God looks at our hearts and knows our intentions.

The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)

Santa is a fairy tale in the minds of young children, meant to bring fun-filled experiences while children are still innocent. Therefore, we need to be sure that when our young ones come of age in understanding, the symbol of Santa Claus does not distract them from truth of the Christmas story or the reverence for the Savior’s birth. This Christmas, let’s be sure our hearts are right before God.

The Savior’s Star Witness

The true story of Christmas celebrates the birth of the Savior of the World, Jesus Christ. When we read this Christmas story, we often gleam over the special events of His birth by simply accepting them as miracles from God. However, there is much more to this story in its fulfillment of prophecy and its message to the world.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. Matthew 2:1-2 (KJV)

These two verses provide intriguing information regarding the events that occurred when Jesus was born. First, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem; second, these wise men saw His star; third, the wise men came to worship Him.

NGC 6960 Veil Nebula - Credit: Adam Block, Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, Univ. Arizona

Wise Men

Most scholars agree that these wise men were Magi from Persia in the east. More interesting is who these Magi were and what they practiced. They were followers of Zoroaster, rooted in the Chaldean teachings, and were wise in the skill of astrology, being able to read predictions from the stars. The Chaldeans are referenced many times throughout the Old Testament for their false teachings and practices. It was the very land of the Chaldeans, from which the LORD separated Abraham to follow Him!

I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it. Genesis 15:7 (NIV)

There is no question that the people and cultures of antiquity studied and worshipped the stars: the signs of the Zodiac permeated ancient cultures all over the world. The Maya were obsessed with time and were most accurate in their measurements using the stars as their guide. There are numerous megalithic structures on the earth today in perfect alignment with the celestial bodies, which testify to the fascination the ancients had in gaining wisdom from the stars.

The holy scriptures are clear that we are not to worship celestial bodies, nor use them to predict the future.

And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. Deuteronomy 4:19 (NIV)

Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. Jeremiah 10:2 (KJV)

The bible does not say that all astrological predictions are incorrect necessarily, but that we must not follow these teachings. Astrology, horoscopes, fortune-telling, they are deceptive even if they are able to predict. We should not be ignorant of those who dabble in these practices and we must be assured that the LORD’s ways supersede any stellar arrangements and only He can confound the wise.

All the counsel you have received has only worn you out! Let your astrologers come forward, those stargazers who make predictions month by month, let them save you from what is coming upon you… Each of them goes on in his error; there is not one that can save you. Isaiah 47: 13,15 (NIV)

No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. Daniel 2:27-28 (NIV)

The Savior’s Star

The Gospel according to Matthew provides a clear description that a new star appeared at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.  Why Christ was born at this exact moment in time and this exact place in the world is a topic to be explored later.

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared… After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Matthew 2:7, 9 (NIV)

We do not have scientific records available from the time of Christ’s birth to corroborate what this star was and when it appeared. However, there are other historical documents that provide further description, such as the Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Ephesians in 69 A.D. St. Ignatius lived very close to the time of Christ’s birth and very likely worked under John the Apostle. In St. Ignatius’ epistle, he states:

How then was our Saviour manifested to the world? A star shone in heaven beyond all the other stars, and its light was inexpressible, and its novelty struck terror into men’s minds. All the rest of the stars, together with the sun and moon, were the chorus to this star; but that sent out its light exceedingly above them all. And men began to be troubled to think whence this new star came so unlike to all the others. Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Ephesians 4:11-12

This historic record may be a description of a supernova that exploded when Christ was born into this world. Supernovae are brightest in the first few weeks after their explosion and diminish in brightness over months, sometimes years. It is reasonable to theorize that a supernova appeared at Christ’s birth, dwarfed the light from all other stars and planets for a limited period of time, and yet was visible long enough for the wise men to find Him in Bethlehem.

Supernova 1987A "After" & "Before" - Credit: NASA

Another curious observation is that this star went ahead of the wise men and stopped over the place where Jesus was. On the surface, this seems to describe a floating bright light in the lower atmosphere that the wise men followed. However, given their wisdom with the stars, the interpretation could be comparable to a navigational tool they used based on the alignment of this star with the constellations to determine the exact location where Jesus was living.

A similar tool is used by Benjamin, son of Jacob, to find his brother Joseph, son of Jacob, in the Book of Jasher.

And he ordered them to bring before him his map of the stars, whereby Joseph knew all the times, and Joseph said unto Benjamin, I have heard that the Hebrews are acquainted with all wisdom, dost thou know anything of this? And Benjamin said, Thy servant is knowing also in all the wisdom which my father taught me, and Joseph said unto Benjamin, Look now at this instrument and understand where thy brother Joseph is in Egypt, who you said went down to Egypt. And Benjamin beheld that instrument with the map of the stars of heaven, and he was wise and looked therein to know where his brother was, and Benjamin divided the whole land of Egypt into four divisions, and he found that he who was sitting upon the throne before him was his brother Joseph, and Benjamin wondered greatly, and when Joseph saw that his brother Benjamin was so much astonished, he said unto Benjamin, What hast thou seen, and why art thou astonished? And Benjamin said unto Joseph, I can see by this that Joseph my brother sitteth here with me upon the throne, and Joseph said unto him, I am Joseph thy brother, reveal not this thing unto thy brethren. The Book of Jasher 53:18-21

Although the Book of Jasher is not part of the biblical canon, it is referred to within the biblical canon in Joshua 10:13 and II Samuel 1:18, so its validity should not be casually or entirely dismissed. The key to remember here is that the wisdom spoken of by Joseph is that taught by Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, who was called out from the Chaldeans by the LORD. Any true wisdom that exists in God’s creative works of the cosmos was passed down to Abraham; whereas the “wisdom” of the Chaldeans and other pagan practices thereafter were corruptions of the original knowledge.

Nevertheless, the holy scriptures provide all that we need to know to follow the LORD. If the wisdom of the stars was necessary for our relationship with Him, He would have ensured this knowledge was included in the scriptures that have been passed down through time. Since this wisdom has been lost with the patriarchs, any attempt we make to seek it out will only lead to distraction and deception. Therefore, we must follow His command and not be dismayed at the signs of heaven.

To Him that by wisdom made the heavens. Psalm 136:5 (NIV)

Scientifically, we know that the earth and our solar system are not the physical center of the universe. How amazing, then, is it that the earth is the spiritual center of the universe, where there may be hidden truths in the stars that can only be seen from the earth’s vantage point and only be revealed by God? This is a question to ask our Creator when we meet Him. Until then, we must follow His Word and refrain from distractions and deceptions that have corrupted His perfect work.

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork. Psalm 19:1 (AKJV)

Worship Him

We do not know the exact tools and methods the Magi used to study the stars and predict the times, but we do know they were watching and waiting for a sign. Once a bright star appeared in a particular constellation in the sky, it marked the arrival of a savior, who would provide the only way to eternal salvation for the world, and so they journeyed to Jerusalem to worship Him. Even in a pagan culture so far removed from the LORD’s ways, He was able to deliver a message to reach those in a foreign land!

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:20-21 (NIV)

We should not be so naïve or arrogant to dismiss the awesome works of our Creator that far surpass anything that could ever be documented in any ancient record. The bible contains everything we need to obey His commands and be united with Him. To deny that there may be other wonders in creation that He has not yet (and may never) reveal to us is to limit God to a box that we can only define with our finite minds. We should fearfully revere Him and all His handiwork. As we read the Christmas story this year, consider the star that appeared to mark the Savior’s birth as a reminder of the awesome creation of Almighty God and that the purpose of His creation is for us to worship Him and for Him to redeem humanity.

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9 (NIV)

A Call to All Christian Parents and Leaders

There is a recent study posted by the Barna Group, which gives Six Reasons [why] Young Christians Leave Church. All Christian leaders (including parents by definition) should read the results of this study and accept the important lessons that can be learned. The six reasons are listed below with a reflection on what it means for Christian leaders in society today.

1.  Churches seem overprotective: This generation is living in an age where there is so much uncontrolled information available at everyone’s fingertips—some information is valid while much is false. To either (a) deny someone the freedom to review the available information, (b) pretend that it does not exist, or (c) ignore the conflicting arguments simply because it may contradict Christian beliefs could compromise the very faith a leader is trying to protect. Young Christians cannot be told what to believe; rather, they need to understand (i) why they believe and (ii) the validity of their belief when faced with conflicting points of view. There are many examples of topics that hit mainstream media and challenge Christianity—topics ripe for addressing within a church or nuclear family—yet, if ignored, they can fester in a young Christian’s mind and dissuade him/her from the Truth.

2.  Teens and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow: Churches offer many exciting youth programs, which provide high-energy opportunities for young people to connect with others and hear the teachings of God. These activities are often highly emotional and trendy, effectively grabbing a young person’s attention. However, these activities must be coupled with solid teaching and proper example of Christian living. There is a high responsibility placed on any Christian leader to lead by example in his/her daily actions. Leading a Christian life is not always easy, nor is it always fun and filled with blessings; it is the right thing to do simply because that is what Jesus Christ taught and what God requires.

3.  Churches come across as antagonistic to science: Regardless of one’s position on scientific theory (such as the perpetual Creation versus Evolution debate!), the opinions and information that have come out of the scientific community should be respected. Science provides a means to appreciate the truly awesome nature of Almighty God from a complementary perspective to that of the bible. Scientific theories may clash with biblical truth, but the collective evidence can provide fascinating insight into the power, authority and genius of God. Christians do not have to compromise their faith and accept every scientific theory that presents itself; after all, how often do those theories change? However, Christians need to listen to the ideas presented and thoughtfully consider how it aligns to the biblical scriptures. The bible is not a scientific document, nor should it be treated as such, and it will not explain every scientific question out there. The bible’s purpose is to unite us with God and teach us His character, with some scientific facts interspersed throughout the scriptures.

4.  Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental: The topic of sexual purity is one of the most seldom discussed topics within the church family, except for the fundamental principle that sexual activity must only occur within the covenant of marriage. Waiting until marriage to become sexually active is not fun and cannot be sugar-coated. It is God’s precept for purity that should be obeyed. And there should be no judgement by Christians or the church if someone has failed to live up to this standard. Judgment is reserved for God alone to execute on those who have refused Him.

Sexual topics that are so freely discussed, alluded to and joked about in society should be the same topics discussed by Christian leaders—especially parents—so that young Christians have a thorough context for their belief. These topics may not be appropriate for all audiences, but they are certainly appropriate for teenagers dealing with personal sexual struggles and the bombardment from the media. If society and the media are so free to promote sex, why aren’t Christians so free to teach about it? Sexual desire is a basic human trait that cannot be ignored and silence on the matter is destructive.

5.  They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity: The Christian faith is exclusive, plain and simple, and its message cannot tolerate conflicting beliefs. However, Christians must not give reason for the church body to be considered an elitist society by those who do not share the same beliefs. Everyone is welcome, but not everyone accepts. The Christian message is clear that it is the only way to eternal salvation and cannot be compromised.

Society is pluralistic where beliefs and cultures are blended to make everyone feel comfortable. Christians have the responsibility to care for the sick and needy, love and tolerate everyone regardless of their faith. The freedom to practice the Christian faith (at least in Western society) is the same freedom shared by everyone who practices differing faiths. Christians must, therefore, humbly respect this freedom and not use Christianity to either force beliefs on, force actions by, or protest against the freedom of others of differing faiths. Everyone is given free will to either believe the Christian message in faith or reject it.

6.  The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt: Was “Doubting” Thomas (John 20) any less of a Christian because of his initial doubt? According to the record in the Book of Martyrs by John Fox, this same Apostle Thomas preached the gospel in India and was eventually killed by having a spear thrust through him for his faith!

Doubt should be expected in the church and can be used to trigger discussions with like-minded individuals. The world is saturated with information today and one can find enough opinions to convince him/herself of any belief. Questions should be encouraged with the understanding that the answers may not be immediately apparent. There is a strong onus on the believer to study the scriptures him/herself rather than just seek the answer from a leader, who may not be able to provide a reasonable response causing further frustration. Ultimately, the choice comes down to faith with the acceptance that not all questions can be answered in this lifetime.

These six reasons for disconnection are important lessons for all Christian leaders. Leaders’ beliefs should not necessarily be compromised in these matters, but the methods by which they teach should be evaluated. Teaching is more effective than preaching in society today. Many subjects that would address these reasons are just not explicitly taught during regular church attendance.

The young church attender either (a) blindly accepts the principles preached at him/her, (b) dismisses the faith based on poor or ignorant teaching he/she received on these topics, or (c) researches Christian theology for him/herself and comes to a reasonable conclusion that solidifies his/her faith.

There is a step of faith required for a person to believe in the truth of the scriptures, but this truth is revealed by a direct study of the bible rather than a shallow acceptance of what any church or leader may say.