Section 1.B Christmas Traditions
The modern day Santa Claus can be traced back to one of the Roman Catholic saints: Saint Nicholas, who lived in the fifth century. Today he is referred to as jolly old St. Nick. Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor (now Turkey). He allegedly gave gifts to children, and after he died mothers began telling their children that St. Nicholas might visit them on Christ’s Mass if they were good. Originally he was remembered on December 6th as a holiday for children – complete with sports and gifts. The date was later changed to coincide with Christmas celebrations. This legend grew (as legends often do) and became bigger than life.
The term Santa Claus came to American English through the Dutch (St. Nicholas was called Sinter Klaas and eventually Santa Claus.) Santa Claus was also known as Kriss Kringle, which is reportedly a corruption of the German Christ Kindl – Christ Child. (If true, this is quite blasphemous!)
Early drawings of St. Nicholas picture him as a serious looking bishop. Over time, that image was gradually morphed into the impish looking jolly old man with rosy cheeks, a white beard, red coat, and belly like a bowl of jelly. Some legends have him leaving a whip for children instead of toys if they were bad. That was considered bad taste in America – so a piece of coal replaced the whip. But over the years, the image of St. Nicholas has changed – in part because of several popular poems and stories. Part of the modern American picture of Christmas is that of a magnificent sleigh pulled by eight reindeer carrying a bushy-bearded Santa Claus. The eight reindeer have only been in Santa’s service since 1822, when Clement Clarke Moore of Troy, N.Y., wrote his decidedly secular Twas the night before Christmas. Moore’s knowledge of popular views of Christmas was based chiefly on the St. Nikolaus customs brought to the area by Dutch, German and Scandinavian immigrants. The Santa Claus which children recognize today would not have been recognizable by children a few centuries ago.
In the book entitled, Saints, (pg. 153) – some fantastic ancient legends about St. Nicholas are recorded. According to this folklore, he is the one who relieves the poor; raises the dead; calms the stormy sea – the winds and the waves obey his voice. Does this sound familiar? The legends have this man performing God-like deeds, long after the apostolic age of miracles ceased. After reading these legends in several sources, I checked out a couple of official Roman Catholic web sites – and they too all listed these miracles, BUT they also said that they were not able to verify all of them. (This might be the understatement of the year!) He became the patron saints of children, pawn brokers, perfumers, sailors and Russia.
The legends and folklore concerning Santa Claus today should raise serious concerns for believers in the Lord Jesus Christ because of the attributes ascribed to Santa. He knows when you are sleeping. He knows if you’ve been good or bad. He must be omniscient to know what every child is doing all year long. He rewards good (with good gifts) and punishes evil (with a piece of coal). Does every good gift come down from Santa? He visits every home in the world on the same night. He must be omnipresent. He can fly. He has been giving gifts to children for hundreds of years. Is he eternal? Legends of Santa Claus ascribe to him the attributes of God. Santa Claus is coming to town, so await his blessed appearance. He is coming and his reward is with him. Even so come, Santa! This should cause alarm to any believer in Christ. Thou shalt not have any god before Me (Ex. 20:3).
If we teach our children to believer in Santa Claus according to the popular traditions, we are lying. Parents often tell their children that Santa comes on the night before Christmas bearing gifts, which of course is a complete fabrication. It isn’t a little white lie. It is a lie, and there isn’t any possible way for a Christian to justify lying – under any circumstances. Thou shalt not bear false witness (Ex. 20:16). Lying is to be put away. It is always sin (Eph. 4:25).
What are our children to think if we lie about Santa Claus? Lying about Santa leads to other lies too. “Daddy, can those reindeer really fly? Did the elves make this present for me? Does Santa really know what I’m doing? Did he really eat those cookies we left out for him?” If you LIE about Santa Claus – one who is supposed to be omniscient, omnipresent, and the rewarder of good, sooner or later they will discover that this was all a lie. Eventually that child will discover that his parents have been pulling the wool over his eyes all this time. He may then begin to wonder, What about Jesus? What is that same child going to think about Jesus Christ when he begins thinking for himself? Can he trust you about this other Person he cannot see but has to accept by faith? Have we not lost our credibility? If one person with god-like qualities was proven to be a fake, what about the other one? And who is to blame if he decides that the Lord Jesus Christ is just another sweet little fairy-tale for kids?
Regardless of which side we take on the Christmas issue – lying is always sin. And we can’t call it a “harmless lie.” That’s sort of like harmless poison. What are we teaching them about truth and error if we introduce them to what we have (erroneously) defined as harmless lies? Every parent ought to teach their children about Santa Claus. They should teach their kids that it is a myth and that the things that are said of him are only a story – with no truth to them. They are going to see him at the mall – or hear about him at school. In December Santa Claus is ubiquitous. There is no avoiding him. Tell your kids the truth. And tell them: “Every good gift and every perfect gift cometh down from above” – but not from a sleigh on the roof – but from the Father of Lights… the true and living God! Truth is important to God. Jesus said, “I am… the Truth.”
The Christmas Tree
Evergreen trees, because of their ability to remain green throughout the winter season when most other forms of vegetation are dormant, have long symbolized immortality, fertility, sexual potency, and reproduction.
Winters in the northern countries are harsh. As the early Germans observed autumn with the gradual dying of nature, when plants and leaves of trees began to change color, shriveled up and fell to the ground, followed by winter with its ice and snow, they blamed evil spirits for all the killing. Only a few trees stayed alive – the evergreens, and thus they became a symbol of immortality. Good spirits and the magic power of the evergreen were believed to resist the life-threatening powers of darkness and cold. They believed in the special powers of these trees and wherever they were, evil spirits could not go, so they superstitiously brought the greenery into their homes.
Says historian Alexander Hislop of this particular custom: “The Christmas tree, now so common among us, was equally common in pagan Rome and pagan Egypt. In Egypt that tree was the palm tree; in Rome it was the fir; the palm tree denoting the Pagan Messiah as Baal-Tamar, the fir referring to him as Baal-Berith. The mother of Adonis, the Sun-God and great mediatorial divinity, was mystically said to have been changed into a tree, and when in that state to have brought forth her divine son. If the mother was a tree, the son must have been recognized as the ‘Man the branch.’ And this entirely accounts for putting the Yule Log into the fire on Christmas-eve, and the appearance of the Christmas tree the next morning” (p.97).
The worship of trees is also linked to paganism. Franz Delitzch’s commentary on Isaiah 57:5 notes that the ancient Phoenicians used a terebinth tree in their worship of Astarte. Books on archeology and many encyclopedias also indicate that trees were often used in pagan rituals from many ancient cultures: Sumerians; Assyrians; Egyptians; even the American Indians; etc. The Chinese considered the Ginkgo tree to be sacred; the Egyptians considered the palm tree to be sacred. Historians link the hanging of evergreens back to the pagan Druids who lived in England 200 years before Christ. Many of the modern customs associated with Christmas today can be traced back to pagan origin. This is quite well documented historically.
The worship of trees is also linked to Rome. Some sources attribute the modern use of the Christmas tree to a man called Boniface. He lived around 675 AD near what is now Exeter, England. He was a missionary approved by Rome and sent out to Germany by the Pope. In Germany he destroyed pagan temples and began building churches for Rome. In Germany, the pagans believed that the oak tree was a sacred tree to their god Thor. According to folklore, Boniface began to cut down a large oak tree before all the pagans, and after he had chopped it about half way through, a great wind blew the tree over, convincing the pagans that this was the power of the true God. Boniface then encouraged Christians to use a small evergreen tree to remind them of Christ instead of the oak which reminded them of Thor.
There are a host of other traditions at Christmas time which are also linked to pagan customs, such as wreaths, evergreens, hot cross buns, yule logs, etc. Today our Christmas traditions are an amalgamation of paganism, Romanism, German and other northern European customs, and a large dose of good old American commercialism.
The Connection to History
Many believers who have read the history of some of the Christmas celebrations have seen a connection between the modern day traditions and ancient paganism and have decided NOT to participate in Christmas or the Christmas traditions.
When the Christmas traditions were brought to New England from Europe, the godly Puritans utterly rejected them. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony began the region’s tradition of NOT observing Christmas in 1621, a tradition which lasted nearly 200 years! When newcomers came to the community and asked to be excused from work on Christmas day, he said he would spare them punishment until they were better “informed” about the origins of the holiday. The Pilgrims and later the Puritans opposed Christmas on the grounds that the Bible said nothing about it and therefore, they wanted no part of it. Puritan leader Cotton Mather condemned what he called the “long eating, hard drinking, lewd gaming and rude reveling” that accompanied the Christmas holiday. He said that such actions have “more of hell than heaven” in them. In 1659 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted a law to punish citizens “found observing, by forbearing from labor, feasting, or any other way, any days such as Christmas” under penalty of fine, imprisonment or whipping. They saw it as pagan and Roman and ignored it altogether. They even outlawed it! The early colony in Virginia (settled by Anglicans) celebrated Christmas, but the Puritans of New England did not – and for many years.
Long after the tradition had taken root in other parts of the country, New England was the last hold-out of Puritan thinking, namely, in rejecting Christmas. December 25th was just another day. Stores were open; schools in session; farm chores to be done. It wasn’t until the 1830’s that things began to change in New England and signs of Christmas began to pop up. In 1856 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that he detected what he called “a transition state about Christmas here in New England…the old puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday, though every year makes it more so.” In Boston, public schools stayed open on December 25th until as late as 1870. That’s when the US Congress declared Christmas a federal holiday on June 26, 1870. In 1874, Henry Ward Beecher, a Congregationalist, wrote of his New England boyhood: “To me Christmas is a foreign day, and I shall die so. When I was a boy I wondered what Christmas was. I knew there was such a time, because we had an Episcopal church in our town, and I saw them dressing it with evergreens, and wondered what they were taking the woods in the church for; but I got no satisfactory explanation. A little later I understood it was a Romish institution, kept by the Romish Church.”
Many believers today believe that the Puritans had it just right in rejecting the influx of Christmas traditions, because with the traditions came along a lot of other baggage, such as Christmas shopping; excesses in eating and drinking; materialism; commercialism; etc. Many believers today see Christmas as inextricably linked together to these excesses and choose NOT to celebrate it. They say, “I don’t want any of that in my life!”
On that basis they are to be commended. It is reasonable and it fits perfectly with Scripture. There is no Biblical basis for any of these traditions. The Bible never commands the believer to celebrate Christ’s birth, to decorate a tree, hang up a wreath, hang up the mistletoe, deck the halls with garlands of evergreens, light candles, or buy presents. There is an undeniable historic link between these practices and ancient paganism. There has historically been a strong connection between Christmas and all kinds of excesses. For a believer to survey the practice as it exists today and to realize its pagan connections, its materialistic overtones, and to say, I want no part of it – is perfectly understandable, legitimate, and Christ honoring. There is nothing wrong with that view whatsoever – and everything right about it. It is perfectly right, good, and acceptable to the Lord for a believer (on the basis of history) to chose NOT to follow these traditions. As a pastor I am going to do whatever it takes to assure that folks who hold these convictions are not looked upon as odd ducks, but as sensible, reasonable, thoughtful believers who seek to honor Christ by NOT esteeming the day (Romans 14:6).