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Yes, Santa Does Belong in Christmas

Think gift-giving has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus? Bah! Humbug!

Santa's sleigh

Haven’t we all heard people complain about the Santa in Christmas, how all this gift-giving has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus? To them I want to say, “Bah! Humbug!”

Gift-giving, stockings hung by the chimney with care, Santa coming down the chimney, the joy of seeing your kids and grandkids unwrap a toy under that well-lit tree—they all feel connected to Christ’s eternal message of love.

One Christmas morning years ago, as I was putting away the wrapping and ribbons, our younger son, Tim, then a wise kindergartner, said, “Daddy, I know that you and Mom are Santa Claus. Is that true?”

I hesitated for a moment, but then decided I had to be completely honest. “Yes, Tim,” I said. “That’s true.” He looked at me for a moment, then shook his head, the truth too much to bear. “You’re teasing me,” he said.

He didn’t want to give up the myth just yet. And why should he? The origins of Santa are many, even if that jolly, mirthful figure with the white beard and red suit doesn’t exactly look like Jesus.

His first prototype was a true servant of God, St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey. He cared deeply for the poor, rescuing three women from what would have been prostitution by giving them dowries. 

Over the centuries he became honored on the eve of his saint’s day, December 6, with the giving of presents, because that’s what he did. Moving the gift-giving up to December 24 and 25 was encouraged as early as the 16th century by Martin Luther.

For us in America, St. Nicholas lingered in various guises. His Dutch name Sinterklass became Santa Claus or Kris Kringle or even Father Christmas. His popularity spread widely with the publication in 1823 of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (or “’Twas the night before Christmas”) by Clement Clarke Moore.

Others have claimed authorship, but Moore still seems the most likely source. A thoughtful, spiritual man, he was a professor of ancient languages at a seminary in New York City. And talk about generous. That seminary is on land he gave to the church. 

The rotund appearance of Santa Claus comes a bit later—after all, Moore had him as a “right jolly old elf”—by the cartoonist Thomas Nast in an 1863 magazine illustration.

Advent is all about the coming of Someone who is already here. Isn’t Santa Claus the same? Children learn about the spirituality of anticipation and waiting as they scrawl out their messages to be sent to the North Pole—a little like putting your prayers down on paper.

And when Christmas finally comes, they discover how much they are loved. This year as I give thanks on Christmas Eve for not just one but two new grandsons, I smile at all the gifts I can give them over the years in the secret guise of Santa. Waited for and loved.

Read More: A Day in the Life of Santa Claus

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