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Explaining Christmas Traditions: Santa Claus

We are explaining the origin of some Christmas traditions and customs. Before diving into the one for this week, I did want to point out a question that sometimes comes up at this time of year - why do people sometimes write Xmas? The origins of that phrase actually comes from the Greek language, as the word for Christ starts with a Greek letter that looks like an X. Christians have used X as an abbreviation for Jesus at times in various contexts, and Xmas started out as a way of a shorthand way of writing Christmas (and still would be pronounced as Christmas).

Now onto the topic of the week: How in the world did the figure of Santa Claus get connected to the birth of Jesus?

Generous Old St. Nick

The figure of Santa Claus stems from the historical figure of St. Nicholas, a Christian who lived in the fourth century and was known for his generosity, as he celebrated God’s generosity to him in Christ by giving things to others. He inherited quite a bit of money from his parents, and he used this money to help the poor. There was a particular story of St. Nicholas putting gold coins through a window at night to help a family who had lost all of their wealth. Stories grew of him leaving coins in the shoes of people who left them outside at night, prompting children to leave their shoes outside to receive gifts. These stories eventually traveled across the Atlantic Ocean when Dutch settlers founded New York, with his Dutch name being Sinterklaas. This story spread throughout America, with the name Sinterklaas morphing into Santa Claus. While this tradition of shoes and gifts would happen on St. Nicholas Day (December 6), it became associated with Christmas, with Protestant reformers highlighting that Jesus (the Christ Child), not St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) was the one who brought gifts.

St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and the Gospel

What I find interesting is that the story of St. Nicholas talks about grace rather than works, which is the opposite of what is usually associated with Santa. You see, Santa is said to give gifts to good little boys and girls, so one could say that these children have “earned” these gifts. However, the gospel tells us that good people do not receive God’s gift, but rather sinners, with that gift being His Son and the salvation that He offers to all who believe in Him. When we experience this grace, we become generous people, as we become like the generous God that we worship. Rather than only giving gifts to those from whom we receive gifts (and seek to make sure that the gifts are “even”), the story of Jesus and the example St. Nicholas is a reminder that we are called to give out of joy, not duty, and to help others rather than to seek something in return. Therefore, thinking about Santa can bring us back to the gospel message.

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