The Church Mouse uncovers the Christian origins of the bearded gift-giver


Much has been written about the traditional appearance of Santa and how we have come to a pretty common global image of a man in red robes with a long white beard and a big cuddly belly. This is often (wrongly) attributed to a certain brand of soft drink. But little has been written on why he has a beard. You may be surprised to learn that the reason for Santa's facial fur is theological.

The origins of Santa

The traditional origin of Santa can be traced to stories about Saint Nicholas in the third and fourth century. The earliest accounts of Nicholas's life and deeds come centuries afterwards, so it must all be taken with a Christmas sized pinch of salt, but the traditional biography is of a wealthy man from Myra, Asia Minor, in modern day Turkey. He became a bishop and used his wealth and position to help the poor and needy. One story, which struck a chord with many through the ages, was of a poor man who had three daughters but was too poor to be able to pay a dowry to allow them to marry. This would condemn them to a life of poverty and likely force them into prostitution, so Nicholas decided to help. The father was too proud to accept charity, so Nicholas crept up at night and dropped bags of gold down the chimney of his house, which fell into stockings which had been left to dry by the fireside below.

Nicholas is said to have performed many miracles and some claim he attended the Council of Nicaea. The traditional account of his life is that he was imprisoned under the Roman persecution, but was later released under Emperor Constantine. He was venerated after his death and a church was built in Myrna in his name around 200 years after his death, which you can still visit today.

One of the topics that was debated at the ecumenical councils and that divided the Eastern and Western Churches was that of the beard

Nicholas was a popular saint around the Christian world, and in Holland his reputation as a gift-giver made him patron saint of Children with the Dutch version of his name, Sinterklaas. 

Interestingly, a completely separate tradition existed in England of 'Old Man Christmas' or sometimes 'Father Christmas' who was the bringer of festive fun at Christmas time. This character was more associated with the adult entertainments of drinking and revelry. The reformation, and the later puritanical crackdown on Christmas, caused the old English tradition of Father Christmas to be merged with the separate tradition of Santa Claus. To the puritanically minded, Old Man Christmas was a disreputable character who tempted people into the sins of the flesh, while Saint Nicholas was a wholesome character who espoused generosity and virtue.

It was not until the Victorian revival of Christmas that the current image of Santa / Father Christmas became more fixed, as gradually the Dutch tradition won out over the English one. And so the figure we know today is largely that image, with the red robes of a bishop and the white hair and beard of the old man. He is no longer associated with adult feasting and festivity, but almost exclusively with bringing gifts to children.

Beard theology

The key to the reason why Santa is always depicted with a beard is the fact that Saint Nicholas was a Greek-Turkish bishop in the early fourth century. We are now in the realms of Beard Theology. 

At this time, many of the central tenets of Christianity were being hammered out and argued over at the great Ecumenical Councils. There was also an emerging division between the church of the East, centred around Constantinople, and that of the West, centred around Rome. One of the topics that was debated at the ecumenical councils and that divided the Eastern and Western Churches was that of the beard. The Eastern Church insisted that clerics grown their beards, in imitation of Christ and the apostles, to reject worldly vanity and to respect the Old Testament law which required it. The Church of the West believed that St Peter instituted a new tradition of the tonsure, whereby the top of the head and the beard were shaved to show humility.

Early Church Fathers like Augustine of Hippo and Clement of Alexandria, both from North Africa, argued strongly for the beard.

Clement lived around 150 years before Nicholas and wrote specifically on the importance of beards. Clement’s The Instructor was made up of three books, one of which contained the chapter, ‘Against men who embellish themselves’. The majority of the chapter is an argument that men should let nature take its course with their facial and body hair: "How womanly it is for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, and to arrange his hair at the mirror, shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them…for God wished women to be smooth and to rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane. But he adorned man like lions, with a beard, and endowed him as an attribute of manhood, with a hairy chest – a sign of strength and rule…It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness."

"How womanly it is for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor" - Clement

It is fair to say that this is a rather baffling piece of man-theology, but nevertheless it is solidly in the tradition of the teaching and belief at the time. There are likely some links with St Paul's teaching on hair: "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God." (1 Corinthians 11:13–16)

Augustine of Hippo lived at the same time as Nicholas and similarly wrote on the importance of the beard: "There are some details of the body which are there for simply aesthetic reasons, and for no practical purpose – for instance, the nipples on a man’s chest, and the beard on his face, the latter being clearly for a masculine ornament, not for protection. This is shown by the fact that women’s faces are hairless, and since women are the weaker sex, it would surely be more appropriate for them to be given such a protection."

Augustine expanded on his gender theory on a commentary on the Psalms in which he noted: "To the beard. The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man."

Saint Nicholas was a bishop in the Eastern tradition who followed in the footsteps of Clement and Augustine and so would certainly have preserved his chin from the razor and remained unshaved. It is for this reason that Saint Nicholas is traditionally depicted with a beard. Since he lived a long life, the traditional representation is also of an old man and hence his hair and beard are white. This image was later incorporated into the Sinterklaas tradition and became the basis of the modern Santa.

So the reason Santa has a beard is because he believes in the fourth century gender theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Happy Christmas everyone!

The Church Mouse is an award winning blogger and author of Beard Theology: A holy history of hairy faces. Follow him on Twitter @thechurchmouse