The Christian roots of Santa Claus
Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
Many American children look forward to Christmas gifts from Santa Claus, but few people know the Christian roots of the legend of Santa.
Clement C. Moore’s poem
The American traditions of Santa Claus comes primarily from the poem by Clement C. Moore, a seminary professor in New York City. The poem was originally called, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but most of us know it by the first line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was published in 1823 and had a great impact on the tradition of Santa Claus. It is from this poem that people get the idea of a jolly elf with a big belly coming on Christmas Eve with reindeer and bringing gifts for children. Yet even this poem never calls him Santa Claus, but instead it calls him St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real person who was a Christian bishop in the 4th century. He was born in A.D. 270, and died on December 6, A.D. 343. Nicholas grew up in a wealthy home in Myra, part of modern-day Turkey. He became bishop of Myra and was known as an orthodox, Bible-believing bishop, with a reputation for secret gift-giving and caring for children. One legend said that he often put coins in the shoes of people in need. The most famous legend about Nicholas was that a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for their wedding. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.
One version of the legend has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.
The legends develop
You can quickly see how these legends developed over the centuries into the legend of a character who brings gifts in secret, sometimes in stockings or down a chimney. He is known by many names in many countries, including Father Christmas, Père Noël in French, and Sinterklaas in Dutch.
Because the real St. Nicholas died on December 6, in many nations he is remembered on that day with the giving of gifts. But during the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants changed the gift-giver to the Christ child, which is Christkindl in German, and changed the date from December 6 to Christmas Eve. The German Christkindl was corrupted to Kris Kringle in English, and in New York, the home of poet Clement C. Moore, the Dutch Sinterklaas was corrupted to Santa Claus in English.
Four great children’s Christmas books
Parents and grandparents often look for great books to share with their children at Christmas. Here is what I consider to be four of the best children’s Christmas books. One is sentimental, some are humorous, and one will help a child deal with suffering.
One of my favorites is Alabaster’s Song: Christmas through the Eyes of an Angel by Max Lucado. It tells the story of a boy who believes he hears the angel on the Christmas tree singing. Then miraculously, the gap-toothed angel appears by the boy’s bedside, a boy like him, and tells him what it was like to sing to baby Jesus. Children of all ages will enjoy this book, but parents, watch out, because you may get a lump in your own throat at the way the story ends.
In my list of favorite children’s Christmas books, I have to include the classic book that I loved when I was a child, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. This beloved book has been made into a popular cartoon TV show, that includes the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” In recent years, a live-action movie was also made, but I still prefer the cartoon that follows the book word-for-word. It is hard to improve on the whimsical rhyme of Dr. Seuss.
Most readers already know the story, of how the Grinch couldn’t stand the noise that all the “Who’s down in Whoville” made on Christmas morning. So he decided to steal all of their toys on Christmas Eve. What he never anticipated was that they would still sing on Christmas morning without any presents at all. I love the climactic lines:
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!/ It came without packages, boxes or bags!”/ And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. / Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!/ “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store./ Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”
The changed heart of the Grinch has put the word “Grinch” next to “Scrooge” in the Christmas vocabulary of the English language. Every child deserves a chance to hear a parent or grandparent read it to him or her directly from the book, and follow it with a heartfelt discussion about the real meaning of Christmas.
My third selection is Cajun Night Before Christmas, by “Trosclair,” edited by Howard Jacobs. This is a regional favorite in Louisiana, but I have read it to children in Georgia who loved it.
Imagine the famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” told in the dialect of south Louisiana, with St. Nicholas gliding across the bayou, with “eight alligator a pullin’ a skiff.” Of course, the alligators have French names:
“Ha, Gaston! Ha, Tiboy! Ha, Pierre an’ Alcee’! Gee, Ninette! Gee, Suzette! Celeste an Renee’!”
I have read this story aloud to my family and to children in public schools over the years, and it always produces loud laughter, even among those who aren’t familiar with the Cajun culture. There have been many imitations of this book, such as the Cowboy Night Before Christmas and the Redneck Night Before Christmas. But none have surpassed the originality and pure fun of Cajun Night Before Christmas.
My final selection is All Is Well: A Story for Christmas, by Frank Peretti. Peretti is the best-selling author of the Christian thriller This Present Darkness, but he is also the author of one of the most touching Christmas books for children that I have ever read.
All Is Well is different from other children’s Christmas books for several reasons. It is on the reading level of an older child, perhaps about fifth grade. It is on the emotional level of a single mom who is struggling to make ends meet at Christmas. The story takes place in July, not during the Christmas season. Yet is most certainly a Christmas story, especially for those who going through tough times during the holidays.
If you are looking for a cute Christmas book for your child, this is not your book. But if you need encouragement to make it through Christmas, this may be the best book you could read, especially to a child who doesn’t understand why God is allows suffering and hard times.