by Dale Reeves
According to an article in The Washington Post, people willing to be Santa Claus are in short supply this year. Apparently, our nationwide worker shortage that has impacted an array of industries has extended all the way to the North Pole. There simply are not enough Santas to meet the demand of this year’s back-to-normal Christmas events and parties. The median rate for Santas-for-hire is $30 an hour, with many experienced (and real bearded) Santas commanding $150 an hour or more. So, low pay isn’t the cause. Many of those who play the role for Santa are at high risk in our covid-19 world due to their age, and often, their physique (i.e., “bowl full of jelly”). For fifty years now, Tim Connaghan, known as the “National Santa,” has played the jolly old fella in major parades, and in the “Toys for Tots” initiative. He surveys other Santas annually, and Tim says that 18 percent of the surviving Santas are taking the year off. So, if you’re looking for work this year, and can grow a white beard quickly (think Tim Allen in The Santa Clause), there’s work to be had!
That begs the question that I tend to hear about this time every year from Christian parents: To Santa or Not to Santa? Should parents tell their kids the “white lie” that the gifts that arrive Christmas morning under their Christmas tree were delivered from the big fat bearded man who wears a furry red suit, or should they tell them the truth? Most parents tend to tell their kids whatever they were taught by their parents when they were children. What was your experience with Santa Claus like? Was Santa a big deal in the home you grew up in, or were your parents anti-Santa? As a parent or grandparent, how do you deal with this dilemma today?
The Real St. Nicholas
Part of the answer to this dilemma lies in understanding the history and tradition that created the image we see as Santa today. Children scampered joyfully after him as he walked the streets. Sailors sought his blessing before long voyages, and his acts of generosity were legendary. He had been imprisoned for his unshakable faith, and some people claimed he worked miracles as he boldly spoke in the name of Jesus. I’m talking about St. Nicholas of Myra, born in Asia Minor more than seventeen centuries ago, who gave his life to full-time ministry to others. He lived in modern-day Turkey in the third century, where his zeal for Christ got him in trouble with the authorities, and he was tortured and imprisoned by the cruel Roman emperor Diocletian.
After becoming bishop of Myra, Nicholas learned of a sailor whose three daughters were doomed to a life of prostitution and degradation because their father could not afford a dowry for them. Nicholas secretly gave the sailor three bags of gold to serve as the girls’ dowries. This act of kindness became widely known and with his evangelistic success, Nicholas became immensely popular among all classes of believers. When he died, the church established December 6 as St. Nicholas Day. Traditionally, the bishops of the Catholic church would go around in their cities on this day and do acts of charity and give gifts to children. This practice continued for many centuries, and eventually St. Nicholas Day and Christmas merged together.
As pagans converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages, winter festivals and traditions mingled with popular pagan beliefs to create Christian celebrations of Christmas. The godly old bishop St. Nicholas was merged in the mind of some with a pagan god. In Norse and Germanic mythology, Thor is the God of Thunder and soars through the sky in a chariot pulled by two large magical goats. Reindeer were viewed as mysterious creatures linked to lands in the northern part of the world. This accounts for the flying sleigh with flying reindeer, some of which were named after some pagan mythology. Donner and Blitzen are similar to the Germanic words for “thunder” and “lightning,” both of which were commanded by the Norse god Odin. Cupid was the god of love in Roman mythology, and Vixen comes from Greek mythology.
It was the Dutch who first brought their “Sinterklaas” to America. However, some very dramatic changes took place to make Santa Claus the figure of magical powers with whom we are so familiar today. Late in the 1800s, a German cartoonist living in America, Thomas Nast, released a conception of Santa Claus that depicted him as a jolly fellow with a big beard, a fur-lined suit, and a pipe of curling smoke. Then, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” was released in 1823 that solidified our image of Santa flying through the air in his toy-filled sleigh led by reindeer, sliding down the chimney, and leaving presents under the tree.
The Middle Ground
It is possible to give Santa Claus too much of the limelight and thus crowd out Christ in the midst of the “Christ”-mas celebration. At the same time, parents who are strongly anti-Claus can make God appear to be a killjoy. And, part of the magic of the Christmas season is seeing the wonder and awe in the eyes of children. Jesus told us, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, 4, ESV).
What if children could eventually learn that Santa is a fun, make-believe character, but that Jesus is real and he is the one who came to bring “God with us,” accompanied with all the good gifts we receive from our Father in Heaven? Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11, NLT). The Lord’s brother, James, also tells us that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (James 1:17, NIV).
Santa is a dramatic emblem of a world crying out for a larger-than-life daddy who will love his kids even when they are not perfect and give them gifts to fulfill their longings. He’s called “Father Christmas” in the Commonwealth nations; and at the holiday season, much of our world softens up—if only for a few weeks—to acknowledge its need for someone like him. Of course, that someone is the real Father of Christmas, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who perfectly supplies all that we need on a daily basis—not just on Christmas Day.
When our first daughter arrived thirtysomething years ago, I bought a small “kneeling Santa” statue at Baybrook Mall in Webster, Texas. This statue has helped me through the years embrace Santa as part of the magical experience for children, but at the same time, keep him in his proper place. Even though this event is not recorded in Scripture, I don’t have a problem seeing Santa kneeling at the manger when Jesus was born. Let’s be honest, the little drummer boy wasn’t present in Bethlehem that night either, but we still celebrate his song as part of our Christmas tradition. Pa rum pum pum pum.
I believe that if we tell our children and grandchildren the inspiring story of St. Nicholas, and of other generous people like him, we won’t be turning their attention away from Jesus. Quite the opposite, we’ll be showing them how the Christ Child of the manger is the one we worship during this season and all through the year. He is the one who can shine even now through hearts that are devoted to him. And whether or not there’s a shortage on Santas this year, there’s no shortage of the amount of God’s love that we can share with others.
Wanna know more about this topic? There are some great books available for parents and their children, including these: