|The Day Santa Claus Was Baptized
December 19, 1999 / Acts 17:23 & 1 Timothy 4:3-5
Since I announced this sermon a couple of weeks ago, not only has there been some curiosity and buzzing but some questions directed to me. Maybe somebody who didnít know me wondered if I was planning to "Bah, humbug!" Christmas and trash Santa. "No Halo for Santa" is the title I remember from a few years back for an article in a major Christian magazine that warned Christians about including the man with big belly and bushy beard in their Christmas celebrations. Give me a break!
I want to assure parents of very small children that this sermon is child-safe! You arenít going to hear me say anything that will send your excited kids into tumults of tears and leave you to pick up the pieces between now and Christmas Eve! Iím all for the fellow in the red suit.
You know what they call people who are afraid of Santa, donít you? Why, theyíre Claus-trophobic. And Iím not! Cotton Mather, the celebrated cleric of New England, described yuletide merrymaking as "an affront unto the grace of God." Balderdash! And even for those today who consider it pious to decry and cut themselves off from all the "crass commercialism," overeating, and partying, I would sound a word of caution by means of this quotation:
May I find in moments such as these an echo of those "tidings of great joy"? I wonder, would the Christ-child, if he sat beneath our sparkling tree, condemn as crass and empty all he saw? Or might he laugh and cheer and clap his sticky hands with glee to see his miracles take place again and life become abundant shared in love?1
And when I tell you that Santa has been baptized, Iím echoing the ancient Christian tradition of what one theologian dubbed "baptizing the traditions of secular holidays in the message of Godís love that has been revealed in Jesus Christ." Since the time of Emperor Constantineís conversion to Christ and his order to "Christianize" the pagan feasts, Christians have been seeking to turn every symbol to the glory of God. Thus a midwinter festival to the s-u-n was converted into a day of rejoicing over the S-o-n of God. If Jesus is described by biblical writers as the "Sun of Righteousness" and Godís "true light coming into the world," what could be more natural?
"Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him," counseled the Apostle Paul (Col. 3:17). If any activity, celebration, or feast cannot be immersed in Christ-honoring significance, there is no place for it in our lives. If it can be baptized in or colored with Christian connotation, we would be dishonoring God and cheating ourselves by failing to do so. And the Santa Claus tradition lends itself to such an interpretation quite naturally. So letís have a little fun with it. Then weíll move to the point of serious application.
Late Word About Santa!
The fact of the matter is that, with regard to the Santa issue, there are legitimate questions about the origin and development of the whole idea. There is even a bit of Internet research going around to the effect that Santa Claus is probably a woman. Kay Walker, without committing herself on the issue, passed it along to me and encouraged me to dig more deeply into the theological significance of what is being reported.
Bear in mind, now, that it hasnít been proved beyond reasonable doubt that Santa is a woman. But you know how utterly dependable Internet "spam" is! So you are likely inclined to believe it, right? "I think Santa Claus is a woman," the anonymous sleuth says. "I hate to be the one to defy sacred myth, but I believe he is really a she. I can buy the fact that other mythical holiday characters are men. Father Time shows up once a year unshaven and looking ominous; definitely a guy. Cupid flies around carrying a weapon; typical male behavior. Uncle Sam is a politician who likes to point fingers; again, quintessential male conduct. Any of these individuals could pass the screening test for maleness. But not St. Nick. Not a chance."
Not to bore you with all the technical research, Iíll cut straight to the seven primary evidences for this historical revisionism.
7. Christmas is a big, organized, warm-fuzzy, nurturing, social event, and it is tough to believe a male could visualize, much less pull off, such a thing.
6. A male Santa would inevitably get lost in the snow and clouds of Christmas Eve and then refuse to stop and ask for directions.
5. A man would rather be dead than caught wearing red velvet.
4. A manís masculinity would be threatened by being seen with all those elves.
3. Men donít answer their mail.
2. Being responsible for Christmas every year would require a non-male virtue called "commitment."
1. If Santa was a "he," all eight reindeer would be dead, gutted, and strapped to the rear bumper of the sleigh amid wide-eyed, desperate claims that buck season had been extended. (Blitzenís rack would already be on the way to the taxidermist.)
The flip side of all this research and potential revisionism is that some women would love for the thesis to be proved! Thereíd be no more early-morning decisions about what to wear, you could accessorize for life with a single black belt, and never grab the wrong coat on your way out the door. Also, the people around you would be on notice constantly that theyíd better not pout!
All this is to say that one of the good things about "baptizing Santa Claus" is to dispel the false notion that Christians donít know how to have fun. That we never lighten up. That weíre perpetually guilty of some sort of ó and this is Jack Hayfordís term ó "sanctified Scroogism."2
Helpful, Holy History
It might surprise the adults here to know there really is a Santa Claus. At least, there was a Santa Claus. A Christian man named Nicholas (270-345) was originally born in a town of Asia Minor called Patara. His parents died of plague when he was but a teenager. They left considerable wealth to their only son and heir, and Nicholas determined to use his money for good purposes.
A nobleman from the same city of Patara had lost all his wealth and could not arrange marriages for his three daughters. He had no funds for a dowry, and his total financial collapse left his family with embarrassing unpaid debts. The disgraced family was deserted by former friends. They had no one to help.
Without a dowry in fourth-century Asia Minor, a girl did not marry. Unskilled at any sort of manual labor or trade ó for they had been born to nobility ó the girls could contribute nothing to their own upkeep. And their father could no longer house or feed them. He became so desperate that he eventually decided he had no option except to force his girls into prostitution and arranged with a local "madame" to take them. The family had to eat, he reasoned.
When Nicholas learned of this situation, he took a bag of gold and ó under the cover of darkness ó threw it in an open window of the disgraced and desperate manís lodgings. Some versions of this story have the young Nicholas tossing his bag of gold through an open door or down a chimney. There was dowry money for the oldest daughter! She was soon married. Then, at appropriate intervals, Nicholas did the same for the second and third daughters. He was found out on his third visit and overwhelmed with gratitude by the girlsí father.
Nicholas became a minister of the gospel. In his later years, he was selected as Bishop of Myra and campaigned for the protection of starving, neglected children. Known eventually as "Saint Nicholas," Catholics in Europe proclaimed him as the "patron saint" of little children. The Feast of Saint Nicholas was abolished in some European countries after the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. But it survived, sometimes being "secularized" by the Protestants.
Typically depicted as a thin old man in a white beard, Saint Nicholas often had a long cape or crimson clerical robes. That is the way he appears yet in most European pictures ó and malls. Americans are shocked to see a skinny Santa and wonder whatís wrong with the old guy!
When Dutch colonists came to America, they brought with them their Saint Nicholas or Sinterklass. He was still thin and austere looking. He wore a red bishopís coat and rode a white horse. Clement Mooreís famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," began changing the North American image of St. Nick.
He had a broad face and a round little belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew pictures of a plump, ruddy-faced Santa Claus for Harperís Weekly in the 1860s and gave us the image most Americans carry with us. American marketing since that time ó especially by Coca Cola ó has carried this fat, jolly character around the globe to complement or compete with the more austere tradition.
In Germany, he is still Saint Nicholas. In Holland, he is Sintirklass. He is Father Christmas to English children and Pere Noel in France. To Americans he is Santa Claus.
But what is "holy" about this history? For one thing, it is rooted in the story of a deeply religious and generous man whose intention was to honor God with his wealth. Thatís a noble heritage for Santa to carry! For another, even for those who donít know any of the history of Santa Claus, he is a metaphor for a world that cries out for a father-figure who will love even the children who arenít perfect and help make their dreams come true. Thus he plants in children and keeps alive in adults a desire that can be realized only when someone turns to the Father of Spirits.
Iím all for using the traditions or visual images of a culture to turn peopleís hearts to thoughts of the one true God. Want a biblical example of that strategy? How about Paul addressing the cultural center of his day, Athens, and saying:
Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17:22b-23).
So showing a clip from "Christmas Vacation" or singing carols or ticking off Internet "research" about Santa being female isnít really such a new strategy, is it? Weíre way behind the times in terms of Paulís ability to using the prevailing culture to communicate Jesus to people (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19ff).
And for those who want to prohibit the enjoyment of Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty, perhaps they also want to outlaw Bugs, Tweety, and the Taco Bell chihuahua! At a more theological level, they might want to listen to Paulís instruction to those who wanted to draw lines where God has not. He wrote: "For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer" (1 Tim. 4:4-5).
With appreciation for the Christmas traditions we have in our culture, may we celebrate them intelligently and gratefully. May we consecrate them by the Word of God and prayer. May we guard against defending fantasy too vigorously or history too lightly. Above all, may we celebrate the Christ for his incomprehensible love ó and immerse Santa, the tree, the gifts, time together, food, and laughter in grateful praise to Him.
1J. Barrie Shepherd, A Child Is Born (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988).
2Jack Hayford, "Santa, Saved and Sanctified." Undated sermon manuscript posted on the Internet through CompuServe, December 5, 1999.
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