Advent 3: Santa..The Myth, and the Messiah! December 14, 2008
Scripture: John 1:6,19-28
Text: John 1:20 "He confessed... "I am not the Messiah."

A church-school teacher asked her young class what Christmas meant to them. Almost all the children said that the most important thing about Christmas was getting presents from Santa Claus.

Of course, the most important thing about Christmas for Christians is the birth of Jesus Christ into our world. Yet isn't it a fact in our culture that Jesus is being pushed out of his Christmas cradle in deference to a red suited, white bearded old man who bears in his sack the latest in Christmas toys and gadgets?

My message this morning may give you the impression that I am completely opposed to Santa Claus. That is not the case. We all grew up believing in the Christmas Eve magic of this "jolly old elf." It is great fun on Christmas morning for parents and children alike to rummage through their stockings to see what the visitor from the North Pole has brought. It is great fun to watch the widened eyes of children as they discover that the cookies and milk set out the night before have been consumed by their mysterious guest. I would not want to be the ‘Grinch’ to steal such light hearted joy and happiness away from anyone's home.

Nevertheless I am concerned that as Christians we keep a balance and not allow Santa Claus to usurp Jesus in our celebrations of Christmas. We need to realize the significance of the Christ child and the significance of today's Santa Claus are often far apart and sometimes even completely contradictory.

Where did the legend of Santa Claus come from? Scholars have long debated this question. The best evidence indicates that we are indebted to European customs and beliefs for the myth of Santa Claus. History tells us that there was once a Christian bishop named Nicholas who lived in the fourth century A.D. in a coastal city of what is now southern Turkey. Once imprisoned by the Roman emperor, Nicholas developed a reputation for both his secret acts of charity and his many miracles. Actually there is little
historical information about this Nicholas, but in the centuries after his death, a strong religious tradition developed around his life. Christian churches were dedicated to his presumed sainthood as holy places of pilgrimage, and a number of legends were associated with his life. In fact in the Middle Ages, no other non-biblical saint was as popular as Nicholas.

By the late Middle Ages, it had become the custom in several European countries to celebrate the feast day of Saint Nicholas on December sixth. The night before, on December fifth, parades were often held in honour of this saint, who was portrayed as riding a white horse, carrying a shepherd's crook, and wearing the robes and mitre of a Christian bishop. Before going to sleep on this evening, children would set out straw for Saint Nicholas' horse. They would line their shoes up beneath their beds in the hope that by the next morning Saint Nicholas would fill them with goodies to eat. Up to this time little, if any, connection was made between the Saint Nicholas festival and the birth of Christ.

When the Protestant reformers came into prominence in the sixteenth century, they sought as a matter of principle to ban the Roman Catholic practice of venerating saints. They, therefore, rejected the popular festival of Saint Nicholas. Martin Luther thought it was nothing less than idolatrous to give gifts in the name of Saint Nicholas. Instead, he gave his children presents at Christmas in the name of Christ. Several Protestant European countries adopted this new practice.

However, the common folk were not entirely willing to give up their old festival. As it happened, instead of on December sixth, the gifts of Saint Nicholas began showing up in homes on Christmas morning. Thus it was virtually a fluke of religious history that first linked Saint Nicholas and the birth of Jesus together. Aside from the popular belief that Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children, there was really very little theological justification for this linkage.

In North America, meanwhile, the early Puritan pilgrim colonists of New England would not even celebrate Christmas, never mind give consideration to the legends of an ancient Christian saint. However, later, in New York several families of Dutch heritage gathered together to honour Saint Nicholas in mid-December. In a sense, this Dutch celebration was largely a matter of ethnic pride and self-defense. After all, in this New World of competing Old World cultures, the Scots had their Saint Andrew, the Irish their Saint Patrick, and the English their Saint George.

In 1810, the New York Historical Society held its first of many annual Saint Nicholas dinners. At these dinners, held on the old feast day of December sixth, printed images of Saint Nicholas portraying him wearing bishop's robes with featured stockings hung by the fireplace and children who were either smiling or frowning, depending on whether they had been good or bad that year.

At about the time the Saint Nicholas dinners were begun, Washington Irving published a humorous history of the early Dutch settlers in New York. Included in this work was the first American literary description of Saint Nicholas. This supposed history told its readers that Saint Nicholas was a great hero who showered Dutch children with presents on the eve of December fifth. Irving's Saint Nicholas was every inch a Dutchman. He wore a low, broad-brimmed hat and large trousers in which he carried his gifts. He smoked a long pipe and traveled by horse and wagon on his rounds.

Immensely popular, Irving's work initiated a widespread North American interest in Saint Nicholas. In a short time Saint Nicholas became more commonly referred to as Santa Claus. He was outfitted in a red suit with a flowing robe. Instead of a horse and wagon, he was given a sleigh and a single reindeer. Also, it became increasingly common to associate his annual visit with Christmas Eve.

Inspired by Irving and others, a New York minister named Clement Moore penned the most famous of all writings about the American version of Saint Nicholas. Known almost everywhere English is spoken today, Moore's poem begins, "Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

Originally written for his own children, Moore's poem substantially embellished the image of the new Santa Claus. He became "chubby and plump ... a right jolly old elf" who was full of laughter and merriment. His sleigh was now a miniature one, pulled by eight tiny reindeer who could fly through the skies. A white beard on his chin and a bundle of toys on his back, Moore's Saint Nicholas had no trouble at all flying back up the chimney when the Christmas stockings were filled.

In 1890 in Harper's Magazine, illustrator Thomas Nast developed the image of Santa Claus that is so familiar today: a rotund, white-haired old man who wears a red and white suit and stocking cap. In time still more embellishments were added to Santa Claus. Eventually he was given a home in the North Pole, a wife, and a lead reindeer named Rudolf, with a nose that glowed at night. As you well see, Santa Claus has evolved far beyond the original Christian saint whose feast day was celebrated in the Middle Ages. By contrast, Santa is not so much a holy person as he is a fantastic, magical figure.

Unlike the saintly bishop, St. Nicolas, who went from door to door on his horse, delivering his simple gifts of food, today’s Santa Claus flies, miraculously negotiates narrow chimneys, and lives in a frigid "never-never land," where he and his elves mysteriously manufacture the latest in Christmas toys.

It is true that Santa Claus has religious elements in his ancestry, but by and large, his function in our society seems to be far more commercial than religious. The overwhelming emphasis is not so much on Santa's generosity as it is on the presents he brings. Rather than a patron saint of Christianity, the modern Santa is really the patron saint of Christmas shopping. If this judgment seems a little harsh, consider where Santa Claus is most often seen today. More often than not he can be found in a department store or a shopping mall. Very often he is on television or the radio selling Christmas merchandise. Oh yes, occasionally on behalf of some charitable organization, Santa is out delivering packages to people who are needy, or sick kids in hospital - and all that is good. But more often than not he is merely the window-dressing for some secular, commercial concern.

There is another aspect about the modern Santa, aside from commercialization. An even more basic issue is the fact that there is a large gap between the significance of Santa Claus and the significance of the Christ child. Although the two have long been joined together in popular Christian thinking, they actually are only superficially compatible.

Consider these important differences: Santa Claus represents great affluence and luxury. He is overfed and rich with presents. As a symbol of easy prosperity, he is eagerly awaited and welcomed wherever he goes. By contrast, the Christ child of Christmas was born into a setting of great poverty and rejection. Instead of a fine crib, he laid in a crude stable manger. Instead of being eagerly welcomed into this world, there was no room for him in the inn. Shortly after his birth, he and his parents had to flee because of the cruel hatred of Herod.

Santa Claus specializes in material gifts, whereas Jesus promises gifts of the Spirit. The followers of Santa Claus seek to gain and get. The followers of Jesus seek God's kingdom, realizing that true discipleship often means giving and serving others.

The love Santa Claus offers is a conditional one. Boys and girls are usually expected to earn their gifts through good behaviour. By contrast, the love Jesus offers is unconditional. It is offered to the good, and especially to sinners.

The modern Santa Claus is a imaginary figure. Like a magical superman, he is untroubled by the world's difficulties or realities. By contrast, Jesus was born into the frailty of our flesh. He is truly Emmanuel, "God with us." He shares with us not only our joys, but also our sorrows.

Santa Claus is a once-a-year phenomenon of sentimental merriment. When the Christmas toys are all broken or put away, the feeling fades. By contrast, Christ is always with us. The Lord of all time and history, he brings us a deep, eternal joy that endures even beyond death. Santa Claus preoccupies us with a selfish concern for what he will bring us. The Christ of Christmas would have us turn outward from ourselves to go into the world to serve others in his name.

Santa Claus is a myth that is ever changing, dependent on the cultural whims of the moment. Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the same Son of God yesterday, today, and tomorrow – indeed, forever.

Yes, there is a great difference between Christ and Santa Claus, and as Christians we need to strike a balance in what we tell our children and grand-children. By all means let them enjoy the fun and pleasure of the Santa Claus myth, but at the same time let them know whose birthday we are recognizing, or we could be in danger of making Jesus over in the image of another secular Santa Claus. Yes, there is a difference between the babe of Bethlehem who is Christ the Lord, and Santa Claus.

In our Scripture today in John 1, we read of a contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus. Big shots from the Jerusalem religious establishment heard reports of this sensational desert preacher who was getting people stirred up with his message about the kingdom of God being at hand. A delegation from Jerusalem comes down and puts John the Baptist on the spot. "Just who do you think you are, anyway?" they demand to know. John says, "Well, I'm not the Messiah, if that's what you think I am claiming. "

"Well, who are you?" they press.

John says, "I am just the announcer, the introducer, of one who is going to make me look small by comparison.”

Put Jesus and Santa side by side and Santa is small in comparison for Santa is not the Messiah - he's a make believe myth. As Christian families let us strive in our observance of Christmas not to push the Christ-Child? Messiah out of his own Christmas manger in preference to Santa the myth. Amen.