Or was Jesus really Santa Claus? OK, perhaps that feels a little clickbaitey, but there’s an interesting degree of overlap between these well-known historical characters who reign over Christmas proceedings in various ways.
I apologize in advance if this blog topic offends anyone. If your initial reaction is “Sacrilege!” you could stop reading now before gathering too much umbrage. I was raised partly devout Catholic and partly doubting Unitarian, so I do speak Christianity. My personal faith–and I do have one–sits somewhere between pagan and atheist. The atheists are too nihilistic for me (c’mon! sunsets! tulips! puppies! there’s something there!) but the pagans are also too organized and just as preachy as the Catholics. I tried reading a book on How to Be a Pagan once, and it demanded I go vegan and stop wearing leather. So much for that.
It’s long been fascinating to watch the tussle between Santa and Jesus that takes place this time of year, or the tussle between gift-getting and altriusm, more to the point. It’s not really an either/or, though, is it? There were real people, there were stories that augmented their life, and those stories keep evolving.
Will the Real One Please Stand Up?
Bearded. Robed. Known for his generosity. Categorized deeds as either meeting standards or as violations. Miscreants on the left and do-gooders on the right. (Or is naughty on the right and nice on the left? ) Painted by the famous, whether accurate or not. Immortalized in song, which then may or may not be included in the “legend.”
So many parallels.
Saint Nicholas of Myra and Jesus of Nazareth were both real people who did real things that were noticed by their contemporaries. Over time, their stories were exaggerated, and it’s interesting to see what got added, and whether some feel that’s part of the “real” story.
Jolly old St. Nick was Turkish. His parents were wealthy and died of the plague. He was made bishop of Myra, a Turkish city, during a time when Christians were persecuted, but then later joined the Nicean Council, which developed the Nicene Creed under Holy Roman Emperor Constantine.
The Nicene Creed is the one where the Catholics of 325 and 381 decided which parts of the Bible counted and which didn’t, whether God was a Trinity, and whether Jesus was Co-divine (Answer=yes).
Nicholas was known for giving away much of his wealth, and some historians place his date of death as December 6, 343. The Catholic church later declared December 6th to be Feast of Saint Nicholas. Before there were Google calendars, one of the ways people distinguished the days was by saints since, at one point, there was a different saint associated with every single day of the year. That helped when they couldn’t read or didn’t get calendars from their local real estate agent.
Yeshua-ben-Joseph was born somewhere between 6-7 B.C. (though it wasn’t called B.C. back then). One version says it was Saturday April 17, likely an interpretation of historian Matthew’s description of the Star of Bethlehem as a time when Jupiter was in Aries. Yeshua was probably raised as a working-class Palestinian Jew, an only child, following in his father’s trade as a carpenter. He was one of many philosophers, preachers, or prophets of social change in his time. Other local Jewish leaders disapproved of his teachings, so they had him arrested and persuaded the Roman state to execute him.
The Plot Thickens
It’s the stories and interpretations that began after the deaths of these two revered gentlemen that add augmentation. Those concerning Jesus were so varied and contradictory–even among Matthew, Mark, and Luke who were supposedly his contemporaries–that it’s hard to pin down anything with accuracy. Later chroniclers who added and subtracted did so often with pious intent and a desire to make his story more relevant to their time.
Thus, many of the painters who depicted Baby Jesus in the manger did so with scenes from their own countryside. The Flemish painter Roger Van der Weyden, for example, depicts a town that looks a lot more like Belgium than Bethlehem in the background. Or, as some might complain, why show camels carrying the magi through the snow when camels aren’t built for snow, are they?
There’s argument about exactly when Jesus was born, but it’s well established that the Catholic Church fixed the date as December 25 in order to take advantage of the Roman celebrations for Saturnalia. Even if it was winter, it was Palestine, so probably not snowing. Yet how poignant are the carols that speak of him born in the cold? “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” works by talking about that little flower coming in deepest, darkest winter. It’s not as interesting if the rose is blooming in the spring.
The stories about Nicholas also multiplied. One oft-repeated tale was that he made anonymous donations to a pious man who could not provide dowries for his daughters. The three bags of gold went to prevent them from going unmarried which would have forced them into prostitution, and hence Nicholas became associated with three golden balls. Down through the times, those became re-associated with pawnbrokers.
Another legend involves three children and an evil butcher who lured them in, after they’d become lost coming home from their work at the harvest. As they wander through town, the butcher promises them food and shelter, then proceeds to chop them into bits and put them in the salting tubs. Seven years later, Nicholas comes to the butcher shop and compels the butcher to Show the Tub! at which point, the children wake from their “sleep.” Never heard that Santa story, did you? Wonder if they were really zombies?
Thus, Saint Nicholas is often depicted with the children in the tub and with a ball of three apples, gold bags, or golden balls. In yet another story, he convinces sailors to give him bits of wheat from their ship’s hold to feed a starving town, and when they’re done, no wheat is unaccounted for, so the sailors don’t get in trouble. Resurrecting people and multiplying food–I always thought those were stories about the other guy, but once people start creating stories, there’s no telling.
Wikipedia also says that Kriss Kringle was the original Old German translation for “Christ Child.” Google Translate can’t verify that because it doesn’t translate Old German into Old English. Who am I to say that’s wrong?
When I was growing up, there was a Rankin-Bass production about Kris Kringle’s origin story where he was left in a basket in the bulrushes then taken in by seven dwarves… I might not have that precisely right, but it’s close. There’s a Burgermeister Meisterburger who makes the children wash their stockings and hang by the fire every night and outlaws toys. That might not be the version of Santa Claus you know.
Yet I guarantee you know who Rudolph is, even though Rudolph was invented in 1939 by an employee of Montgomery Ward’s, popularized in a 1949 song, and immortalized along with Herbie the Dentist and Yukon Cornelius in a 1964 Rankin-Bass production. Strangely enough, everyone knows the words now to “Holly Jolly Christmas” but not to “Put One Foot in Front of the Other.” Clearly, parts of the mythology become fixed while others don’t.
Santa Elvis, Jesus Gloria… It’s All Creed to Me
For several years during the sixties and seventies, there was a great lamentation that Christmas had become commercialized, and that all the focus on Santa was ruining what was supposed to be the focus on the birth in the manger. That’s the essential point of the Charlie Brown Christmas, which is why Linus explains Christmas by quoting historian Luke describing the shepherds. It’s always been understood that we all need to stop ecdysiastic dancing to jazzy tunes and decorating our plastic trees and instead read Bible stories. Yet all of them are based on stories. I could argue that Christmas is for dancing and that reusable plastic trees–mine happens to be 38 years old–are better for the planet, and that joy ought to be expressed in multiple ways.
What’s really become interesting, as these legends become more widely known over time, is when influencers get upset at someone else’s version. Nothing sets off some of the Fox pundits more than either a black Jesus or a black Santa. And yet… Palestinian…Turkish… neither man was light-haired or blue-eyed, any more than that there were Belgian windowpanes on the buildings outside the manger.
Last night, I caught Kurt Russell’s version of Santa in The Christmas Chronicles and, while I was taken aback at first when he refused to Ho-Ho-Ho, I kind of dug his Elvis-y musical number in the jail. Kurt does a great Elvis after all, why not Santa singin’ the blues? Who is anyone to say that Santa wears red or makes a list and checks it twice or rocks out with Steve Van Zandt or stops time?
Ultimately, Santa is a kind of superhero, which is why his legend is so pervasive. Nowadays, fewer folks adhere to strict biblical doctrines as they once did, but still need the positive ideas that surround the stories (can I say myths? will I get nasty comments?) of Jesus. Something positive born out of the winter. Generosity of spirit and love of our neighbors. Maintenance of the fiction for those youngest among us–it’s a great thing that random adults will not tell random children that there is no Santa unless they’re Grinches, and see there’s another whole set of mythology that has blossomed and expanded in only fifty years!
Santa is fabulous. Jesus can be equally fabulous. I was both scandalized and thrilled to find this version of Jesus singing I Will Survive— why the h-e-double-hockey sticks not! Santa and Jesus are definitely not fighting, but instead two sides of the same coin. The more that people shy away from corrupt priests or scandalous preachers, the more they’re looking for the ideas behind the stories.
So even if some of the depictions of Santa were created by marketers of Coca-Cola and some of the depictions of the manger weren’t historically accurate–assuming that Matthew was describing the Star as an astrologer might–all’s fair with love and Jesus and Santa.
Better not pout, or cry, or demand that all I want is what I have coming to me, all I want is my fair share. Our Holly Jolly Christmas is right around the corner, and the days are getting longer and better. Santa’s brought us a vaccine, and somehow they found an extra shot in every vial… which sounds like the lamp oil lasting to me. Christmas is a concept, and a good one by that.
Don’t overthink it.