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How Santa stole Christmas (and how Christians can win it back)

Candy canes, mistletoe and mince pies all have Christian origins. So what went wrong? Comedian Paul Kerensa explains

John Lennon famously reckoned, “Happy Christmas, war is over”. But what about the Christmas war? You know the one I mean. Saviour vs Santa. Religion vs retail. Christ vs credit card. Each year they square off against each other, like angry fist-waving churchwardens chanting “Christ is born!” opposite a grotto full of Santas with placards reading ‘50 per cent off!’.

Christmas has become the most overflowing of stockings. Even if you manage a dozen or so of its customs, there are plenty more you can’t fit in. Maybe you include carolling, jumpers, a trip to the panto and an annual viewing of Love Actually. Or perhaps you prefer felling your own tree, a Starbucks eggnog latte, Midnight Mass and an annual viewing of The Muppet Christmas Carol. That might mean no room at the inn for Christmas cake, an Advent candle and the local lights switch-on. You can’t have everything – no matter how much John Lewis would like to sell it to us.

We complain that the festive season starts earlier and earlier, sweeping the spiritual roots under the carpet in favour of how many mince pies can be sold. So what should we do about it?

Santa Claus is a Christian

I was surprised to discover that many modern customs don’t necessarily have the secular, pagan or overly commercial origins I’d always thought. In fact, a huge number of our Christmas party guests were invited in by Christians – well-meaning, rightthinking, merry-making Christians. From Santa to Scrooge, mistletoe to mince pies – so many familiar festive favourites are down to creative Christian individuals, who had no idea that their cultural Christmas gifts would take over the party once unwrapped.

Take St Nicholas. It’s not just his belly that’s grown over the years, but his legend too. History tells of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, in what’s now Turkey (how Christmassy: from Turkey, and a town named after myrrh). Long before the flying reindeer – in fact even before Christmas was celebrated on 25 December – there was a generous man who’d one day become the world’s most popular saint, and the face of Christmas.

How Christians turned St Nicholas into Santa

St Nicholas became a true American favourite in a poem by church planter, bishop’s son and professor of biblical learning, Dr Clement Clarke Moore. In December 1822, he created a new poem as a Christmas gift for his children: ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’. It became America’s best-loved poem, from its famous beginning – “’Twas the night before Christmas” – to its parting greeting – “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

Moore wasn’t the first to pen a children’s story based on St Nick. A year earlier, ‘Old Santeclaus’ appeared in an 1821 children’s book called A New-Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve, illustrated with a single reindeer pulling his toy-packed sleigh.

As for the Santa we know and love, before we thank Coca-Cola, let’s acknowledge cartoonist Thomas Nast: a passionate Protestant of Bavarian background, who drew hundreds of caricatures of Santa Claus across the 19th century. Nast’s staunch anti-Catholic stance may have prompted him to poke fun at the venerated saint, bringing in another phase, beyond bishop, legend and myth into a more fun children’s character. Nast added a North Pole address, a workshop and a list, to be checked twice. By the time Pope Paul VI downgraded the status of St Nicholas’ sainthood in 1969, it was too late. Santa was off and flying – largely thanks to Christians.

Nicholas had inherited vast sums of cash, and was determined to give it away anonymously, Secret Millionaire-style. That included lobbing bags of gold through an open window into some fireside stockings, under cover of darkness. It was the only way he could think to help a poor widower and his three daughters. However, by the time Nicholas threw gold in for the third daughter, the widower was waiting to catch him. Nicholas swore the man to secrecy...which obviously didn’t quite work.

After he died on 6 December 343, St Nicholas’ Day quickly became popular. Everyone wanted a piece of him – literally: Italian sailors stole his bones and took them home. His legend was spread by Dutch sailors to northern Europe, where he’s still a firm favourite as Sinterklaas. Over hundreds of years, St Nicholas myths mixed in with bits of the Norse god Odin and his flying horse and, before you know it, a Christian bishop known for generosity had crossed a continent, been stirred into other religions, and was ready to cross the ocean.

For Santa’s foothold in America, we can look to other Christian individuals. The world’s bestselling author of his day, Washington Irving (1783-1859) helped popularise the portly bearded figure. At the very start of his career, he gave America one of the first uses of St Nicholas in literature: “The good St Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children…”

Idolatrous mince pies and mischievous mistletoe

At this point in England, Christmas had been on the wane for a couple of centuries. Under Cromwell, the Puritans banned Christmas back in the 1640s, to focus purely on God, Jesus and the Bible. This meant a period of Christmaslessness – after all, the only birthdays mentioned in the Bible were those of Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20) and Herod (Matthew 14:6), and they both celebrated with violence against others rather than birthday cake, let alone mince pies and turkey.

The church has always struggled to agree on what sort of Christmas we should be celebrating

Ah yes, mince pies. We can thank Cromwell’s religious beliefs for those. Before our modern versions, Christmas pies were manger-shaped. The Puritans saw them as idolatrous. So the shape changed into something round, and the name changed too. As for the sweet contents, those spices were brought back from the Crusades in the twelfth century, and many liked to think they represented the exotic Magi from the East.

Another item seen off by the Reformation was an effigy of the holy family, hung inside the door of a house and decorated with evergreens like mistletoe and holly. The priest might tour the parish and greet each household with a kiss on the cheek as a sign of Christian love. When the effigy was banned, that left the evergreens; mistletoe especially was useful, as it had berries that could be plucked after each kiss. That way, the kisses from visitors could be mercifully finite, lasting only until the berries ran out.

The influence of Dickens

Charles Dickens (1812-70) has been called “the man who invented Christmas” and, while that’s overstating it a tad, he certainly helped mould the modern festivity. Mulled wine reaches our Christmas dinner table partially thanks to him. The social reformer put ‘Smoking Bishop’, a favourite Christmas tipple, into A Christmas Carol, offered by a reformed Scrooge to Bob Cratchit. And Christmas became snowier. Dickens’ first eight Christmases had been white ones, so he wrote with great nostalgia (despite this nation only experiencing seven white Christmases since 1900). Christmas also became more family focused and charitable – a boom in charitable giving in the mid-1840s was put down to Dickens’ festive novella. When Dickens died, so entwined was he with the festive season, that a Covent Garden barrow-girl was heard to say: “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The Christmas he helped sell to the masses was one not focused on the Nativity, but on seasonal redemption and benevolence. Perhaps Christmas charity, as revived by Dickens, has nudged out the Nativity. Today those who say that we shouldn’t forget “the true meaning of Christmas” often seem to mean either the importance of family or the joy of giving – both are at the heart of A Christmas Carol.

There is of course a fair bit of chocolate guzzling at Christmas, and its immediate predecessor, Advent. As soon as Advent calendars were popularised in the early 20th century, there was rivalry between those containing sweets on string, and those that featured Bible verses behind cardboard doors. Once chocolate calendars were trialled in the 1950s, the biblical versions became no match for festive gorging.

Part of the problem for the Church seems to be that, since the Reformation, it always struggled to agree on what sort of Christmas we should be celebrating. Is it a feast day, a fast day or business as usual?

Sinful carols?

Should carols be sung in church or left outside the doors? After all, carols started as dances. In the twelfth century, William of Malmesbury told an advisory horror story: “Othbert, a sinner” refused to stop dancing to his outrageous carols, so was cursed to keep dancing for a full year – till he danced into a pit.

Five hundred years later, the Church hadn’t changed its mind; England’s only legal carol throughout the 17th century was ‘While shepherds watched their flocks’, since it was biblically accurate (‘I saw three ships’? Not in Bethlehem you didn’t – it’s inland). In fact the preservation of carols was largely down to a few individuals, such as Davies Gilbert MP, who appealed to his electorate to send him carols they remembered, and Bishop Edward Benson who started the Nine Lessons and Carols service to lure drunks out of pubs and into churches on Christmas Eve.

Many classic carols came from creative Christian individuals; in 1848, Cecil Frances Alexander answered children’s queries in poetry form – so when asked who made the world, she presented ‘All things bright and beautiful’ and, when asked about Jesus’ birth, she gave them ‘Once in royal David’s city’. John Hopkins (a bishop’s son) wrote ‘We three kings’ as a present for his nieces and nephews, and the same year a Boston Sunday school teacher came up with ‘Jingle bells’ for its Thanksgiving service, just to keep the children happy.

Distraction, sugar and a biblical message – what more could you ask for?

‘Jingle bells’? Created by a church? The same is true of candy canes two centuries earlier, also invented to keep children happy, this time at a Cologne cathedral Christmas service – the curve of the candy cane resembles a shepherd’s crook. Distraction, sugar and a biblical message – what more could you ask for?

That seems to be fairly typical of our Christmas customs. The Nativity story is in there somewhere – you just to have look past the sugar-coating to spot it.

The good news

All of these traditions started out localised and specific, and it took the mass media of the 20th century to make them global. Ever since British broadcasting transmitted the London Christmas to the British Empire, and since the US version took Santa, Coke and Bing Crosby international in the Second World War, our Christmases have all started looking rather similar. So the commercial Christmas has been taking over...but it’s not all bad news.

In fact, Christmas is all about good news. Now the world has picked the traditions it wants to sell us, it’s up to us to work out which of them we want to buy. Christians will continue to spread the good news story as we have for millennia. And perhaps by remembering that so many of our seasonal party guests were invited by Christians in the first place – whether it’s Dr Moore’s generous Santa or Dickens’ charitable Scrooge – we can rejoice in the positive messages that the secular world picks up on each Christmas. We just need to also point beyond them to God’s original gift – the Prince of Peace.

I like to think each of these festive innovators has a role to play. St Nicholas, like a shepherd, giving what he could; Dickens, Washington Irving, and Thomas Nast as three Victorian wise men; angelic choirs like those carol writers and poets; even Cromwell, like Herod, a grumpy ruler trying to stop Christmas. It might look pretty secular nowadays, but I wonder if history’s been telling us a Nativity all along.

Paul Kerensa is the author of Hark! The Biography of Christmas (Lion Hudson)

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