When you think of Santa Claus, how do you picture him?
If you grew up in America, familiar with the ubiquitous Coca-Cola Christmas advertising campaign, you probably picture a rotund, jolly old man, with a long flowing beard, and penchant for red velour clothing. But if you had lived 300 years ago, the image of Santa Claus you would have been most familiar with was of him clocking another man in the face. How’s that? Let me tell you.
When I was younger, we used to celebrate Christmas in a traditional way, with a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, and all the trimmings. Then my mother became a Christian and we began attending a Brethren church which encouraged a counter-cultural approach to the holiday. Christmas was seen as anti-Christian, a pagan “Christ-mass” that was a leftover of pagan solstice practices mixed with Catholic liturgical traditions which were thoroughly un-Biblical. Santa Claus (much like the Easter bunny), especially, was considered a Satanic replacement of the real meaning of Christ’s birth. Suffice to say, I grew up with a certain amount of Christmas skepticism, especially towards Santa Claus.
However, later in life, while studying Church history, especially those debates about Christ’s divinity and the nature of the Holy Trinity, I was surprised to learn about Santa Claus’s thoroughly Christocentric origins.
You see, Santa Claus, also called St. Nicholas, was loosely inspired by a third century Bishop who was born in Greek-speaking Myra, in Lycia (which, after the Muslim invasion, and expulsion of the Christian Greeks, is now known as modern Turkey). He was known as a generous giver of gifts to those in need.
But more interesting is the fact that Nicholas was one of the bishops present at the Council of Nicaea, called by the Emperor Constantine in 325 AD. This was the council that canonized the doctrine of the Trinity, after the heretic Arius began teaching that Christ, while the Son of God, was not God himself. Rather, Arius taught that Christ was the greatest creature of all, but still only a creature (a heresy that lives on through the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons).
As the story goes, Arius was arguing his position before the Nicene Council when Nicholas became so enraged at what he (rightly) perceived to be an affront against Christ’s true dignity, that he got up from his seat, walked over to Arius, and punched him in the face! (Is anyone else picturing that scene from Rocky, except with Stallone saying, “AAAARRRIUUUSSS!”)
Anyways, punching people in the face because of their heretical Christology has not become a popular Christmas tradition. But as an historical fact, it shows that even the person of “Santa Claus” points to Christ and the Trinity in a deeply theological and serious way.
I haven’t yet decided how my family will celebrate Christmas. I certainly won’t be telling my daughter any of the myths about modern Santa Claus flying through the air, and sliding down chimneys delivering presents, etc. I’m Brethren enough not to do that. However, I will happily tell her about the real Santa Claus, about St. Nicholas the Greek bishop, and about what he stood for in defense of Christ. I will tell her that Jesus was not a creature, but He was of one substance with the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God; that He became incarnate as a little child, lived a sinless life, died an atoning death, rose in a glorified body, and ascended into heaven, and will soon return; and that He promised to give everlasting life to all who would believe in Him for it. After all, Christ’s gift is the greatest gift she could possibly receive from anyone.
Originally published December, 2012