Where does the story of Santa Claus come from, anyway?

The following sermon was submitted by ULC minister Mike Salmon. All ULC Ministers are invited to contribute their own sermons for consideration/publication. To submit a sermon, please email it to sermons@ulc.org.


With just a week until Christmas and all my Christmas shopping finally done, I thought it would be appropriate to look into just why exactly we have so many mysterious rituals surrounding this time of the year. Because for a holiday supposedly celebrating the birth of Christ… it’s pretty weird that we’re decorating evergreens and telling our children that a fat man who lives on a floating sheet of ice is watching them all the time… right? Anyways, here’s all you need to know about the evolution of our Christmas traditions.

Christmas: Just Another Day in the Year

My journey started just by looking up when exactly Jesus of Nazareth was born. As some of you may know, the Bible is silent as to the exact birthdate of Christ. The first accounts of Jesus's birth originally speculated that he was born in early January, but Luke 2:8 tells us that the night of Jesus's birth, "some shepherds [were] staying out in the fields keeping watch over their flock." This would suggest that Jesus was probably born in the spring or summer, as most shepherds I know are not fond of freezing to death. But still I wondered: why was December 25th the chosen date?

I found that historically the Romans (and other ancient pagans) celebrated the festival of Sol Invictus on December 25th. The festival of Sol Invictus was a celebration of the sun over the dark; the winter solstice--just days prior--was the advent of the days getting longer. In the early days of Christianity, Jesus was often likened to the sun, so the rather innocuous explanation that "Jesus was just being equated to the sun" is possible.

But for those of us who read Brian Stewart's "The True Origin Story of Hanukkah," another explanation provides itself. (The cynics amongst us may appreciate this.) According to the more cynical explanation, early Christians chose December 25th in order to deliberately coopt the ancient pagan feast day. It has also been suggested that when Christianity was running rampant in ancient Rome, Roman authorities tried to solidify their hold over the religion by making the birth of Christ the same day as a traditional holiday.

Where Does Santa Come From?

I know what you're thinking: "Okay, so that at least partially explains the date, but why am I still coerced year after year into purchasing gifts for my entire family? And why, just why, am I encouraged to tell my children that these gifts come from a ruddy, old, overweight man, his band of mythical elf helpers, and a team of flying reindeer?"

The origins of Santa Claus have its roots in the life of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas lived in what is now Turkey in the third and fourth centuries and reportedly gave many gifts to the local children. For this reason, he came to be known as the patron saint of schoolchildren. 

But the more fantastic elements that birthed our modern conception of Santa Claus arise out of the Dutch tradition celebrating St. Nicholas. In the Dutch tradition, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) is depicted as having white hair and a long, thick beard. He dresses in his familiar crimson robes and walks around with a book in which he records whether children have been naughty or nice.

In this tradition, Sinterklaas is also assisted by a Moorish helper: Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet carries around a bag filled with candy for the children and helps Sinterklaas deliver and wrap all the presents. In the past, Zwarte Piet was accused of donning blackface, kidnapping children and taking them to Spain. Shockingly, this description of Santa’s first “elf” seems to be on the way out. More recently, Zwarte Piet’s “darkened” face has been attributed to chimney soot as he helps Santa. I also didn’t find any mention of him kidnapping children any time recently…  

My Perspective Now

My investigation into the traditions of Christmas now at a close, I came back to what had motivated my search in the first place. “What to tell my children (seven and five respectively) about the craziness of Christmas?” I had to laugh a little at the cultural ghosts that still hold so much sway over our modern world—and prevent us from really coming together with our fellow man. Maybe I just tell them that Christmas is about sharing the joys of life with those around you.  

14 comments

  1. rebadams7's Avatar rebadams7

    Christmas is a season to celebrate joy and love - the love that wants us to seek our joy in doing for others, not ourselves. So, Santa Claus - is real, his spirit arises every time you give or do for others and seek not but the joy on their faces as your reward. This is the Santa I presented my children, and that it was our duty to help him with his mission, so they chose toys to donate to toy drives from their earliest ages. Giving before getting gave them grace and advoided the the gimmies or demanding attitude of some children. The celebration of the birth of a child that would save mankind, with no requirement other that belief in our hearts? Of course that should be celebrated. The innocence of a baby - what a lovely image to present of faith and hope.

  1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

    Christmas is the a time when Churches pull in a lot of money and business get people to spend more money than they have on gifts.

    1. William Dusenberry's Avatar William Dusenberry

      X-Mass has provided the communist Chinese with more money with which to eventually try to destroy the USA, and until the GOP gets its Christian voters, to purchase only USA presents, to play Santa with, the USA will be the first leading world power, to provide its enemies the former Soviet Union, and commie China) with the wherewithal to destroy it (the USA).

      PS; as Santa is to little kiddies; Jesus is to big kiddies.

      “Ask (pray) and yea shalt receive”

      Start the little kiddies, with the mythology, that “Santa can see you when you’re sleeping, and he knows when you’re awake”; then when they grow older, switch Santa with Jesus.

      1. John P Maher's Avatar John P Maher

        HEY DUSENBERRY YER 100% CORRECTO, FER NOW !

      2. Rev Mark D's Avatar Rev Mark D

        And make Houston command preachers into billionaires...plus the added racist attraction of Santa's dark helper, who could easily be black or a Sephardic (i.e., north-African) jew, stealing white babies for a sacrifice or a snack.

    2. Rev Mark D's Avatar Rev Mark D

      Like Valentine's day?

  1. Nicholas J Page's Avatar Nicholas J Page

    Why wouldn't Santa Clause exist im 63 we learnt about him over 50 years ago when I was at infant school. There was a similar blog a while ago.I mentioned The movie Miracle on 34th Street with the late actor Lord Richard Attenborough so he exists spread love and cheer and peace throughout the world . If he's not real there's millions of fakes out there.Ho ho ho Merry Christmas to my brother's and Sisters globally Minister Nick Page UK Maybe I'm St Nicholas with my name.

  1. Lucy Carrasquillo's Avatar Lucy Carrasquillo

    Not only has churches lied to us by compromising God's Word and truth about the birth of Jesus, but USA politicians joined in to commercialize this pagan holiday, as well. Jesus's birth date is based on the Jewish calendar, 57xx or 5782 approximately. Jesus was born in the month of Nisan (April in U.S. calendar) Nisan is also when Passover is done and Christ was crucified as He's referred to as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, died once for all, etc. So, according to Rabbi Jonathan Cahn who calculated with ancient calendars, books, and historians, Jesus's birthday was approximate on the 4th of Nisan and died on that month's Passover week when he was age 33. We've been mocking and compromising God's Word for centuries, but He's coming soon for true believers to take them home before the horrid tribulation...which we're currently experiencing. Revelation has been telling it for over 2000+ years! READ IT! Because failure to prepare EQUALS prepared to fail - don't fail being taken up by Jesus. You'll regret it fir the rest of your tribulation life.

  1. John P Maher's Avatar John P Maher

    THE REAL QUESTION IS, WHO IS WHO !

  1. Gerardo Salazar's Avatar Gerardo Salazar

    According to a previous blog post Santa is an old queen who kisses mature men in their living rooms.

  1. Gary Young's Avatar Gary Young

    The shortest day is the when we honour the Horned Spirit of nature and the hunt. Here in the UK the deity of Cernunnos is celebrated, Christianity has been the smokescreen covering the real festival, the Winter Solstice. The birth of Christ, which has no connection to this day, represents the awakening of the sun, it's a metaphor, nothing more. Churches open their doors to celebrate the rising of the sun, oftentimes on sacred land used for thousands of years by pre-christian people to celebrate our oneness with nature. Christianity orders mankind to use nature, places mankind outside of the natural world, gives it's adherents permission to use and destroy our Mother. I quote words of Jesus that Christianity finds inconvenient, "Seek not the law in your scriptures, for the law is life, whereas the scripture is dead." "God so made life and all living things that they might by the everlasting word teach the laws of the true God to man." "I tell you truly, that the scripture is the work of man, but life and all its hosts are the work of our God." Christian capitalism has done its very best to destroy the Pagan festivals, attempted to turn this fantastic festival that celebrates nature into another Earth destroying festival of narcissistic greed. It didn't work, we're still here celebrating the Horned Lord Cernunnos!

  1. Rev. Rory's Avatar Rev. Rory

    Nice post and I like the last lines" "I had to laugh a little at the cultural ghosts that still hold so much sway over our modern world—and prevent us from really coming together with our fellow man. Maybe I just tell them that Christmas is about sharing the joys of life with those around you."

  1. Rev. Rory's Avatar Rev. Rory

    Comment removed by user.

  1. P. Keith Benefiel's Avatar P. Keith Benefiel

    The four most popular signs of good luck in northern Europe are: the four leaf clover, a pig, animita muscaria mushroom, and chimney sweep. Sinterklaas (the cinder carrier) was the chimney sweep who kept cities from burning down. He was joined by "Black Pete", his climbing boy, also depicted as Santa's Elves. Parents would scare their kids into being good by threatening to sell them to a chimney sweep for a sweep's boy who was forced to climb through the flue. They had a life expectancy of about 16 years, but that was ok since by then they were too big anyway. They died of Black Lung , testicular cancer, suffocation, etc. until more enlightened child labor laws appeared. Who else would pick a chimney for access to a house but a sweep? Who knows when St. Nick combined with the sweep to become Santa. Both were popular. There is a flap over Zwarte Piet being a racist trope, but at the end of a day in the pipes, an albino would be black as the ace of clubs. I know. 40 years a sweep, doing the old in-out, real filthy like.

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