Christmas and Santa Clause: A Historical Review

By Adib Rashad
November 19, 2000

Trinidad and Tobago News Blog
www.trinidadandtobagonews.com/blog

American and European history informs us that the celebration of Christmas was once banned in Britain and the North American colonies. This occurred in the early 17th century. The so-called Puritans in England considered the entire Christmas celebration as repulsively non-Christian. The Puritan Party under Oliver Cromwell in 1642 rendered all Christmas celebrations, religious and secular an anathema, and forbidden by Parliament.

In 1660 at the decline of Puritan rule and the restoration of King Charles II, Christmas observance began to resurface in Britain. The General Court of Massachusetts, however, passed a law in 1659 outlawing Christmas observance. The law was repealed in 1681, but local Christians continued to manifest antagonism toward Christmas festivities. Interestingly, the so-called Puritans were just one small segment of Christians that opposed Christmas. There were other segments that vigorously promoted it.

The Bible and Christmas

Undoubtedly, the story of Jesus’ birth is recorded in Biblical scripture, but the Bible does not advocate commemorating his birth. No Christian in biblical history ever observed his birthday. The apostles most certainly did not. The Catholic Encyclopedia Dictionary states this about Christmas: In the earliest days of the church there was no such feast (1941 edition, article titled Christmas). Additionally, the New Catholic Encyclopedia states: In explicable though it seems the date of Christ’s birth is not known. The Gospels indicate neither the day nor the month (article is titled Christmas and its Cycle).

Explaining why the Christian world celebrates Christmas when it does, the New Catholic Encyclopedia states: The birth of Christ was assigned the date of the winter solstice (December 25th in the Julian calendar, January 6th in the Egyptian) because on this day, as the sun began its return to northern skies, the pagan devotees of Mithra celebrated the birthday of the invincible sun. The first reference to December 25th being regarded as the birth date of Jesus was not until A. D. 354. A Roman almanac from that year mentions that date, but does not offer any evidence of any type of celebration to mark the occasion.

Contrarily, in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, Jesus’ birth and baptism were being observed even prior to A. D. 354, but on January 6th. However, by the middle of the fifth century, most of the Eastern church had adopted December 25th as the birth of Jesus, but keeping January 6th–Epiphany–to commemorate his baptism.

On the other hand, the church of Jerusalem did not change its policy regarding this issue until 549. Furthermore, the Armenian church still regards January 6th by the Julian calendar (January 19th by the Gregorian) as the feast of the Nativity.

Clearly the Bible is reticent about informing us to observe Christmas as the birth date of Jesus; however, it does speak out about the Christmas tree. Surprisingly, the Bible gives a literal rejection of the Christmas tree: Jeremiah 10: 2-6: Thus saith the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen…For the customs of the people are vain; for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

The Bible clearly points out that the display of the Christmas tree is the way of the heathen–the customs of the people. The Bible admonishes the people not to learn their customs or to follow them. Also, this particular verse suggests that the Christmas tree custom is a form of idolatry.

English scholar, Sir James Frazier, in his noteworthy book The Golden Bough, has this to say about the Christmas tree, or as he calls it, tree-worship: In the religious history of the Aryan race in Europe the worship of trees has played an important part of cultural activity. Sacred groves were common among the ancient Germans and tree-worship is hardly extinct amongst their descendants at the present day. At Upsala, the old religious capital of Sweden, there was a sacred grove in which every tree was regarded as divine. Proofs of the prevalence of tree-worship among Lithuanians. Prussians, Greeks, Italians and the Druids are abundant.

Frazier also informs us that: On Christmas Eve German peasants used to tie fruit trees together with straw ropes to make them bear fruit; saying that the trees were thus married.

Religious scholars such as Charles W. Jones and Herbert Armstrong have written extensively about the history of Christmas and the etymological foundation of Santa Clause. According to these scholars and other related sources, the name Santa Clause is a distortion of the name Saint Nicholas, a Roman Catholic bishop who lived in the 4th century. Volume 19 of the Encyclopedia Britannica, pages 648-649, 11th edition, reveals the following: Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, a saint honored by the Greeks and Latins on the 6th of December… A legend of his surreptitious bestowal of dowries on the three daughters of an impoverished citizen…is said to have originated the old custom of giving presents in secret. This custom was subsequently transferred to Christmas Day; hence the association with Santa Clause… It is also stated that Nicholas lived in southern Turkey, and later Asia Minor, during the first half of the fourth century, but nothing was recorded about his life until more than two hundred and fifty years after his death. Less than a hundred years after his death, he was worshipped as a saint for his legendary good deeds.

Recorded history tells us that Christian tradition assigned Nicholas as the patron saint of children. He was venerated from Russia to Holland. He reached New York by way of the early Dutch settlers who built a church in his name on the Battery. The Santa Claus bifurcation of Nicholas occurred in New York; in fact, it is common to remark that Saint Nicholas is patron of New York City, as of New Amsterdam before it. There is a Saint Nicholas Cathedral on East Ninety-seventh, a grandchild of Nicholas’ Russian cult; from 1924 to 1952 it was in litigation before the U. S. Supreme Court to determine whether it was purely American or the sect of the patriarchate of Moscow. There is a Saint Nicholas Avenue and Saint Nicholas Arena, etc.

Historically, there is no doubt that the cult of Santa Claus originated in New Amsterdam and regained momentum in New York. Clement Clark Moore whose famous poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” popularized Saint Nicholas alias Santa Claus and gave birth to an American legend. Moore had the knack for making poetry out of inventory. The poem’s setting describes his home. Chelsea (at what is now Eighth Avenue and West 23rd Street in Manhattan) while his model for Nicholas was the family’s jolly bewhiskered Dutch handyman. Moore was influenced by Washington Irving’s History of New York, which recounts a dream visit from Saint Nick; furthermore, Irving’s work contains two dozen allusions to Santa Claus. Without Irving and the New York Historical Society (knickerbockers) there would be no American Santa Claus.

Moreover, Thomas Nast expressed Santa Claus in art. Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race was his two page spread depicting a Santa Claus visitation scene and some fifteen surrounding vignettes of the by-then-traditional Santa Claus appearances. Thomas Nast was the man who gave artistic quality to Santa Claus.

Saint Nick, Santa Claus and Racism

In 1844 Dr. Heinrick Hoffman, like Clement Moore before him, wrote children’s verses. Hoffman’s Saint Nicholas was so tall he almost touched the sky. He possessed a giant inkstand which he used not only for instruction but for rectification: Over his head in the pot of ink great Nicholas forced each one to sink. Here you can see how black they be, far blacker than the blackamoor.

According to Professor Jones, early corruption of Nicholas’ name (Samiklaus, Sinster Klaes, Klaus, der Niklas, etc.) bespoke friendliness, even familiarity. However, some religious and business people assigned duality to Nicholas, and this duality expressed the racism that was prevalent in Europe and America at that time.

Until recently, Nicholas and Satan visited together in parts of Hungary; in Swabia Klos and Teufel; in low Germany Quaeclacys is coined from Klaai de duivel (Nicholas or Nick the Devil).

The second person assumed a personality, usually black to balance Nicholas’ increasing white. At first in Holland the black person was called Nicodemus, who rode a monkey as Nicholas rode a horse, later, Black Peter traveled from Moorish Spain with Hapsburg Nicholas and would carry bad children back to Spain in a burlap sack.

There were many inspirations for the Schwarzer Man (Black Man). Small children saw him in the chimney sweep, that gave Germans the figure of Hans Crouf (Black Jack). The Black Man had a mummer’s part, as did Melchoir of the Three Kings (Nicholas’ companion was sometimes called Caspar, or Black Caspar, but never Melchoir). Whether at New Year’s Eve or Epiphanytide, the second person of Nicholas took on a variety of guises, in part drawn from the racism of folklore and racial expansionism.

On the other hand, some of the early Dutch settlers conjectured that Sandy Claus (corruption of Saint Nicholas) was represented by a little old Negro, who descended chimneys at night and distributed a variety of rewards with impartial justice.

The Commercialization of Santa Claus

The commercialization of red and white American Santa Claus was performed by Coca Cola, a company at the time that was struggling to sell cold drinks in the cold season. The company needed to figure out how to associate their product with the holiday season, and so they turned to, an illustrator named Haddon Sunblum. Sunblum concluded the spirit of the holiday was really Santa Claus, and Santa Claus had this enormous task facing him every Christmas Eve and that was to go around the world, in an evening, distributing, toys to children everywhere and obviously he would, you know, get tired and he would definitely get thirsty and he would need some refreshment, so what better idea than to have Santa pausing in his rounds in various scenes enjoying a nice cold Coca Cola?

Sunblum’s Santa Claus really became the American Santa and in real terms the worldly Santa because his characterization of Santa Claus was the one that people embraced. He came into their homes; he became a part of their lives and so, in a very real sense, the imagery created by Sunblum for a commercial product became a part of popular culture.

Other Sources:

Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan Biography of a Legend By Charles W. Jones (University of Chicago Press, 1978)

The Story of Christmas By Michael Harrison, London, 1951.

Adib Rashad is an education consultant, education program director, author, and historian. He has lived and taught in West Africa and South East Asia.

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