It’s now upon us! It’s Christmas Eve. Most of us have heard and sung so many Christmas songs by now that the family dog might be ready to sing the chorus. We have a great tradition in America with these various songs, whose themes range from God’s incarnation to a winter ride on a sleigh.
What Jolly Fat Man?
Why are we celebrating, and how do our songs reflect, for ourselves and the world, what we’re all about? We frequently say that Christmas isn’t about gifts, but about _________ (fill in the blank, ideally with a word like “Christ” or “God’s love”). Perhaps we need to consider some of our traditions surrounding the man behind the sleigh.
We first need to distinguish fact from fiction. How did we get this picture of red suited man with a jelly belly who brings gifts to good little children throughout the entire world? This fiction is indeed based on a historical fact, but only as a shadow. What does the Christmas Spirit have to do with the Christmas Myth?
The origins of the Santa Claus myth hail back to the fourth century in what is the southwest coast of modern Turkey.
This was when and where the real Nicholas, a bishop of Myra, lived. He was known for his generosity and his love for the church and true doctrine; this was a man of conviction and piety. He was orphaned at a young age and his parents left him a fortune as his inheritance. Rather than using the inheritance on himself, he chose rather to be charitable. One story about his life tells of a poor father with three girls destined for life on the street. These girls had no dowry and the father was ready to leave them to a brothel. Upon hearing about these girls, Nicholas left a bag of gold in the window for each of these girls so they could marry.
Nicholas also lived during a time of the Diocletian persecution against the church. The local magistrates and authorities had him imprisoned and tortured for believing Christian doctrine. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured because he would not deny Jesus as his Lord. Let that sink in…
So when Constantine became emperor of Rome and ended the Diocletian persecution, this is the background for understanding the Nicene Council and the Arian heresy. The Nicene Council met to debate and settle this important doctrinal issue. The council was meant to unify the church after the persecution of Diocletian after a time of disunity and division. Nicholas, a bishop of Myra by this time, attended the council. The church historian Eusebius records the events: Arius was dividing the Church with his heresy, and Nicholas became so angered with Arius that he crossed the room and slapped Arius in the face.
When we sing about a jolly fat man riding on a sleigh, dispensing presents to children, we’re really closer to the European legend of Father Christmas than we are to the historical figure of Saint Nicholas. Father Christmas itself probably originated with European pagan myths: ivy, mistletoe, and a green robe are the leftovers of that tradition maintained in the Santa Claus myth. The Norman invasion of the 11th century would eventually come to ensure the wedding of Father Christmas with Santa Claus. His jelly belly came in 1823 by way of Clement Moore in “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly referred to as “The Night Before Christmas.”
I’ve been happy to sing songs of sleighs and reindeer. These have been a part of the happy tradition we have with the American “Holiday Season”. These happy jingles remind me of my childhood. They serve to lift our spirits a little. They are part and parcel of the nostalgia of Christmas in our traditions.
But they might also serve to distract us from what we claim to celebrate; I mean, let’s face it: so many of the “jingles” of Christmas have their origins in something other than first century Christian history, and they frequently have no tie-in to Christianity itself. Themes of charity abound, and sometimes try to square this with God’s charitable act of sending His only Son. We hear that Christmas is “more than gifts” and at the same time observe that gifts so often remain the focus. We tell children to wait for Santa Claus with bated breath. Oh, and by the way… God became flesh…
So while we sing “Jingle Bells” as readily as we sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful!,” the words of the former have their origin in pagan mythology, while the words of the latter intertwine with the very earliest teachings of Christianity, calling us to consider that ancient Council through which Nicholas (the real one) was first known. More importantly, it causes us to reflect deeply on Jesus’ pre-incarnate Person, a King becoming a slave, to redeem a people out of slavery. It causes us to reflect deeply on the eternal God who became mortal man to defeat sin and death. It’s the God who created all things out of nothing, now, in Christ, creating a beautiful people out His enemies. It’s a time to reflect on what God has accomplished in the Incarnation:
O Come All Ye Faithful
God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, Begotten, not created.
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee,
Born this happy morning,
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing!
O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels!
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord!
John 8:12; John 12:35
Galatians 4:4; Luke 1:26-38
Psalm 2:7; John 1:14; Hebrews 5:5
Revelation 5:13; Ephesians 3:21; Jude 25
John 1:1; Revelation 19:13
John 1:14; Romans 1:3; Philippians 2:7-8
Psalm 86:9; Revelation 15:4
Hebrews 1:4-6; Ephesians 1:21; Philippians 2:9