Painting of Saint Nicholas of Myra
Saint Nicholas was possibly the most revered Saint in the Middle Ages.

It’s December, which means for much of the world, Santa’s on his way, gearing up production at the North Pole for yet another very busy Christmas season. At home, we’re all hanging the stockings by the fire with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas will soon be there.

People are leaving out cookies and milk, eagerly anticipating presents, and generally indulging in the Christmas cheer.

What many might not know is that jolly old Saint Nick - Santa Claus - wasn’t always so celebrated by Christians. If the Protestant reformers in the 16th century had their way, there’d be no Saint Nicholas at all. In fact, they practically tried to kill him.

Saint Nicholas of Myra

According to historian Gerry Bowler, Saint Nicholas was probably the saint that loomed largest in the minds of those living in the Middle Ages. Saint Nicholas was patron saint of a whole host of things: sailors, children, archers, students, brewers.

Like many early saints, we know very little about the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, and much of what is known is borderline mythic. But one thing that is known is his penchant for gift-giving. Scenes of Saint Nick giving gifts were some of the most popular images in European frescoes of the time.

His Saint’s Day is even a precursor to many elements of the modern day Christmas: Somewhere during the twelfth century on Saint Nicholas’ Eve (December 6th), nuns started placing gifts in childrens’ shoes and telling the children the gifts were from old Saint Nick himself. As Bowler puts it, “the saint became an enchanting night-time benefactor—kind of like today’s Santa Claus, except with religious overtones.”

A few centuries later, however, Protestant reformers sought to destroy both Saint Nick and Christmas - and they almost succeeded.

The Protestants (Almost) Stole Christmas

By the Middle Ages, Christmas had long been celebrated by Christians, who revered ‘Christ Mass’ both as an important day to worship God, as well as an opportunity to eat, drink, and be merry. A two-for-one deal, essentially.

On Christmas Day in 1550, leading Protestant reformer John Calvin was agitated by a larger-than-average crowd at his Geneva church. And he let the audience have it, chiding them as “poor beasts” for believing the Catholic “superstition” that Christmas Day is any more important than any other day, fearing that such reverence for any single day risked turning it into an idol.

As reformers who sought to remove everything extra-biblical out of Christianity, both John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli abolished all the Rome-ordained feast and saints’ days in their churches. They believed that God should only be worshipped in ways explicitly mentioned in the Bible, and there’s certainly no mention of Christmas in the biblical text.

As writer David Swartz puts it, “Christmas, a relic of the cult of saints, was just too Catholic in its extra-biblical prescriptions.”

These ideas were popular with many at the time. Geneva, for example, abolished all feast and saints’ days, hoping for a return to worshipping God as ordained in the Bible, not the whims and fancies of mortal men.

Saint Nick - and all other saints - were on very shaky ground. 

Martin Luther Saves Santa

It was the other major reformer, Martin Luther, that can be largely credited with saving Saint Nick.

Luther disagreed with Calvin and Zwingli on the Christmas front, holding the belief that Christians can worship God in any way they like, so long as no biblical text expressly forbids their worship method of choice.

That meant that traditions like Christmas, feasts, and seasonal gift-giving were A-OK, because they brought glory to God, despite not being explicitly condoned in the Bible. Martin Luther himself was known as a bit of a seasonally festive man; He wrote Christmas carols and conducted Christmas services yearly.

Although apocryphal, it is believed that Martin Luther even invented the idea of decorating the Christmas tree. Christmas trees were already popular in 16th-century Germany, but it is believed that Luther came up with the idea of making them more festive by decorating them with candles.

Of course, Martin Luther still revered God over saints, so he pushed for the annual gift-giving day for children to move from Saint Nicholas’ Eve to Christmas Day, so that, at the very least, the presents called to mind thoughts of God rather than the veneration of saints.

In the Netherlands, merchants also helped keep the Christmas tradition going. They held St. Nicholas fairs, and sold toys and sweets to parents to give to their children, even as Protestant reformers sought to shut them down.

The rest is history - Christmas, Santa, and general seasonal merriment were simply too popular to be destroyed. Seasonal Christmas markets began popping up all over Europe. Saint Nicholas adopted the red and white clothing and big fluffy beard of the Dutch Sinterklaas. And over time, Christmas drifted further and further from Christianity to the point that it is now largely a secular holiday divorced from its ‘Christ Mass’ origins. 

Ironically, that can in part be credited to devout Christians who liked the seasonal cheer too much to return the day to God, as Calvin and other reformers fought for.

How’s that for a war on Christmas?

15 comments

  1. Dave J's Avatar Dave J

    Nice historical piece. Devoid of controversy for a change. Thank you for that.

  1. Minister Mike's Avatar Minister Mike

    Of all the holidays (some religious, some not) that fall in December this year, why do so many zealots fixate on this one?

  1. Paul J. Fumero's Avatar Paul J. Fumero

    Figures that the protestants would do such a thing. I'm glad that they failed. Some times I wonder. When I met Jesus I point blank asked him if he was God. He looked straight at me and did not say a word but his answer was clear "why do you ask me things that you already know the answer to? My answer is No. BTW I've also met his mother... Mary. Beautiful lady. There is no religion to God's people because he has none.

  1. Paul J. Fumero's Avatar Paul J. Fumero

    Figures that the protestants would do such a thing. I'm glad that they failed. Some times I wonder. When I met Jesus I point blank asked him if he was God. He looked straight at me and did not say a word but his answer was clear "why do you ask me things that you already know the answer to? My answer is No. BTW I've also met his mother... Mary. Beautiful lady. There is no religion to God's people because he has none.

  1. Alexander Clarke's Avatar Alexander Clarke

    I am glad that jolly ole St. Nick survived.

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    My electric fireplace didn't come with a fireplace for Santa to come down so I guess he won't be coming to my house this year. That's good beçause I've got better things to do with my cookies than feed a feed a fat, old man.

  1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

    Devoid of controversy? Says WHO? Gerry Bowler is an avid socialist and not one of the books he has written (on the Simpsons and the Spice Girls and how they fit into world history, and you want to use this person as an expert? And this Maria Bowler is a deluded Congregationalist theological education self claimed masters Degree {I say self claimed as Tale Divinity School has no record of her ever attending let alone applying to even go to the school there}) And the Benedictine Peace Center is not even a recognized theology school or any school for that matter so this does not amount to someone passing gas in a high wind. In short not one of these two people have any basis to show they are an expert on anything, and yet somehow their book is being used as a basis for a click bait story?

    1. Ilmenheru Terikson's Avatar Ilmenheru Terikson

      Coming from someone who thinks that the proud boys are a nice christian boys club, that the southern poverty law center is a hate group, that if there is no god then men raping women is just nature taking its course, and many of the other woefully and willfully false nonsense you spout on these forums, why do you even bother any more Dee Gee?

      1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

        when did I ever say that. You can lie if you want but you lie about me and I will call you on it. Seems you are just posting to post and nothing you are saying has any valid reasoning behind it or is based in fact. But then again you are still upset because I proved you wrong about gay teens wearing nailpolish and your ego just wont stand it.

  1. Lionheart's Avatar Lionheart

    Just make sure your children are sending letters to SANTA and not SATAN. It could prove to be a harrowing request with totally the wrong type of gifts arriving. Both are mythical anyway so you should be safe.

    🦁❤️

  1. Ralph Miller's Avatar Ralph Miller

    Christmas has Pagan rituals attached to it.When you mix rituals,fairytales,and myths into religion people tend not to believe in God or Jesus.The church needs to get back to the basics of teaching the word of God..

  1. Barry Weisenbach's Avatar Barry Weisenbach

    Nice article. Close call about losing Christmas

  1. Daniel Ginther's Avatar Daniel Ginther

    Jesus Christ was born in September, I wont give the date, it's found by looking at the record of the birth of John the Baptist and going from there. Dec. 25 is a pagan sexual deviant holiday, what a coincidence that man would choose that day ? Still I like the holiday aspect of family and all, but leave Christ out of it. How would you like someone to wish you happy birthday 4 months after it happened and their excuse was, I felt it more appropriate.

  1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

    It was on December 25 long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would have an impact on everyone in the entire world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.

  1. William Todd Leachman's Avatar William Todd Leachman

    So who are Santa’s sidekicks? I’ve read about Krampus, Pete, Rudolph. Is that only Nordic or Germanic? Seems like the authentic history is much more interesting than the commercialized/watered down corporate US version? Thx

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