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.
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.
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.
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.
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.