Once again the Christmas war is getting ready to break out. By that I do not mean the perennial struggle over Holiday versus Christmas which annually afflicts the entire body politic (at least in the United States), but a conflict peculiar to Traditional Catholics. By that, I mean the question regarding the synthetic mythology surrounding Santa Claus and his Arctic entourage of elves, helpers, reindeer, and occasional odd companions such as Frosty the Snowman. Is he, as certain Trads, Protestant Fundamentalists, and Wiccans (the same odd alliance that hold Halloween to be purely pagan and/or satanic) would hold, to be at best a product of American materialistic consumerism, and at worst a transmogrified shaman? Or is he just a harmless personification of good cheer and kindness, as in Miracle on 34th Street and the Twilight Zone’s “Night of the Meek?” Or might there be yet another, more integrally Catholic way of dealing with or at least seeing the jolly old giver of gifts?
I must admit that in my early ‘60s childhood, I too was a member of the Santa cult. I joyfully sat on his lap in both the Times Square Macy’s and Hollywood Broadway Department stores; although my father made it clear to me that these gentlemen were in fact not the “real” Santa, but merely two of his omnipresent helpers, I was thrilled by the connection that even these franchise holders gave me with the great man! He certainly had no more fervent believer than me in North Pole Workshop, elves and reindeer, and all the rest. I dutifully wrote him letters every year, and refused to listen to the growing ranks of naysayers whose numbers seemingly expanded at the various schools I attended. But at last (though I won’t say when!) my father and I had “the talk.” No – not about girls, that was still a few years off. It was about Santa. Despite the annual disappearance of the milk and cookies (for the man himself) and carrots (for the reindeer); despite the footsteps in the ashes of the fireplace that magically appeared every Christmas morning; despite even the magical way in which the Christmas tree was bare when I went to bed and fully decorated the next morning – Santa, at least in the way I had always understood him, was not real. My parents and older brother between them were responsible for all of his apparent deeds – including even the gifts!
“So it was all a lie!” I complained. “No,” my father said, “Not at all.” Apart from the fact that it had added a bit of magic and enchantment to my life, “and those are things we need all the more as we get older, and have increasingly less of, he is based upon a real person. And not just any person, but the patron saint of your birthplace!” He then gave me two things to read: the famous “Yes, Virginia, There is A Santa Claus” letter from the editor of the New York Sun, and an article from the December 1960 American Heritage, entitled “A Certain Nicholas of Patara.” The first reconciled me to the use of Santa as a symbol; but the second began a life-long love of that right jolly old bishop whose charity was excelled only by his zeal for orthodoxy – he slapped Arius at the Council of Nicaea!
But while that was fine for a young boy in the 1960s, what about to-day? Ought we not to banish him from our homes? Are not Traditional Catholics (and their children) better off without him? My answer to both questions is a resounding “no!” There are several reasons for this, all having to do not merely with the advertising troll Santa has become, but with his historical roots – and in this, as in so much else, I am always in favour of Catholics reclaiming rather than jettisoning elements of their heritage that have been appropriated by others.
So let’s look at where Santa came from. To begin with, it is important to remember that every Catholic culture has an incredible array of varying Christmas custom – and among these are various mythic gift-bringers; many such rituals survived the Reformation – although, as we shall see, usually with some strife by English-speaking Calvinists. But without a doubt, it was the redoubtable St. Nicholas who – early on – became most clearly associated with gift giving, although not on Christmas, but on his own feast day, December 6. Just as he had been in life, the Bishop of Myra was associated with generosity and helping children, and his popularity in the West grew after his relics were brought to Bari, Italy. Eventually, from Eastern France to Poland he was seen as the rewarder of good children with gifts, although his nasty, near demonic companion punished bad ones and was barely restrained by the Saintly prelate.
The first assault on him came with the Lutheran revolt. Martin Luther (who, whatever his faults, loved Christmas – whether he did write Away in a Manger or not) designated the Christ Child or Christkindl as the gift bringer for his followers, and on Christmas Eve, rather than St. Nicholas’ Day. This change was adopted wherever Lutheranism triumphed. But in the 19th century, Catholic Germans, Czechs, and Austrians adopted the little infant as well – although, for many of these, St. Nicholas also continued to come on his own day. Ironically – as we shall see – a name derived from Christkindl, Kris Kringle, was added to the Santa mythos after its use in the 1948 version of Miracle on 34th Street. In the 1990s, the German-speaking world began to be invaded by the Weihnachtsmann (“Christmas Man”), a Teutonised Santa Claus directly imported from the United States alongside KFC, McDonald’s, and Halloween. In response, many German-speaking Traditionalist Catholic families have rallied around the Christkindl as a native expression of the Faith, not knowing of its actual origins.
The American Santa has done more than colonise France and Great Britain; where once their Pere Noel and Father Christmas were separate figures with their own stories, they have been completely assimilated to Santa. This is especially sad with regard to Father Christmas, because his origins lie in the 17th century struggle with Puritans to save English Christmas customs in general. Under Cromwell, there was great success in at last suppressing the remnants of the Yule-tide festivities which had characterised Catholic England. These returned with the Restoration to some degree, and were symbolised as a whole by the figure of Father Christmas, who was shown valiantly struggling with the emissaries of gloom in poems, mummers’ plays, and various other such literary products. He became a gift giver in his own right during the English Christmas revival of the 19th century (of which more in a moment). But in the late 20th century he gradually – like his French counterpart – was annexed by our man Claus.
He in turn owes his origins to the 17th century Dutch settlers of New York, who despite their own Calvinism allowed St. Nicholas to visit their children. By the time of the early 19th century, however, his influence was waning. Then, however, he was rescued alongside Christmas in America itself by the great Washington Irving, the man who gave us Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman. As part of his literary revival of the Dutch heritage in his native State of New York, he discovered their love of St. Nicholas, and successfully campaigned to have him become Gotham’s unofficial patron Saint – which he has remained ever since. But Irving’s accounts of an old fashioned but lavish Christmas in a remote part of England fired the imaginations not only of many Americans, but of Englishmen as well. One of Irving’s greatest fans, Charles Dickens, picked up his love of the feast from his idol Irving, with many results – of which A Christmas Carol was but one.
One of Irving’s fellow New Yorkers who also benefitted was one Clement Clarke Moore, who singlehandedly managed to transform St. Nicholas into Santa Claus with his classic poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“Twas the Night Before Christmas…”). The activist Episcopalian layman could not have known the influence that his work would have. But his co-religionists – ever adept at creating services with cultural/historical overtones, as they show by the annual Paul Revere lantern rite at Boston’s Old North Church, the Valley Forge remembrances at the George Washing Memorial Chapel, and all the State Rituals at D.C.’s National Cathedral – duly commemorate him with an annual Yuletide service at Harlem’s Church of the Intercession, and a reading of the poem at his grave across the Street.
As we know, Santa grew wildly in popularity after Moore’s poem appeared, being first depicted in various colours by 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast, and then settling down in the red and white apparel thoughtfully provided by Coca Cola advertisers in the 1920s. Since then he has gone from triumph to triumph, and his legend has grown wildly in complexity and distance from the facts of old St. Nicholas’ life. So what are we to do with the old fellow?
Firstly, I would look more deeply at him and his fellow mythic gift-givers – to include Befana and/or the Three Kings at Epiphany. I would definitely not throw him out; but I might do as my father did, if I had children, and link Santa directly to St. Nicholas. Indeed, I would probably use Santa as a means of creating and improving devotion to St. Nicholas. But I might also wonder if I wanted to confine the action to Christmas Eve. Perhaps a few presents on St. Nicholas’ Day itself, as well as the Epiphany might well help us in an important quest – keeping the Twelve days well. Just as we should try to keep Advent as a little Lent up to Christmas Eve, we should also attempt to emulate our ancestors in making Christmas last to Twelfth Night on full steam, and at least to some degree to Candlemas. In addition to retaking Christmas in a Catholic spirit, such an effort allows one to take the Christmas season at a slower pace – to savour and enjoy it!
Let us remember above all that the Incarnation which we are celebrating in this feast is a most wonderful and mysterious thing; it should bring us both joy and awe. Just as whatever liturgical functions we attend should reflect this, so too should the customs we observe at home. It is a commonplace to-day to say that Jesus was probably not born on December 25, but that the Church simply baptised the pagan Saturnalia, and appropriated to it celebrations as later they would do in taking the Christmas Tree from the worship of Thor. Don’t you believe it! Although Christmas itself was a relatively late commemoration in the Church Calendar, the earliest feast of which we have any record is the Annunciation – which has always been celebrated on March 25. Even modern academics ought to be able to add nine months’ time to that and come up with a date!
So whether or not you decide to keep Santa for your children – with the proviso that you eventually re-morph him into St. Nicholas for their edification as well as delight – resolve to make the feast and season as magical for them – and yourself – as ever you can! Let the lesser mysteries of Christmas mirth and legends be an introduction to the much greater ones of the Virgin Birth and the adoration of Shepherds and Kings. Remember also that just as Advent and Christmas serve to open the Church’s year, so too should we be attentive to all of its mysteries, its fasts and feasts. As Dom Gueranger put it, “…the Ecclesiastical Year … is neither more nor less than the manifestation of Jesus Christ, and his Mysteries, in the Church and the faithful soul.” As his brother Benedictine, Dom Marmion wrote: “Guided by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus Himself, the Church unfolds before the eyes of her children, every year from Christmas to the Ascension, the complete cycle of Christ’s mysteries…” If Santa can help our children start this voyage, so much the better!
Photos: Pixabay and public domain.
Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor for OnePeterFive. He is the author of many books, most recently Blessed Charles of Austria: a Holy Emperor and His Legacy, as well as Puritan’s Empire: A Catholic Perspective on American History, Vicars of Christ: a History of the Popes, with A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail. His writings have appeared at the Catholic Herald, Crisis, The European Conservative and he also has his own podcast with Mr. Vincent Frankini.