Pardon the Interruption but... I Believe in Santa Claus

Reprinted from December 24, 2006

The apostle Paul was under arrest, being transported to Rome by a military guard. Along the way, his ship put in at the Lycian port of Myra, where the Roman centurion found a different ship that was sailing to Italy (Acts 27:5-6). The book of Acts does not tell how long Paul was in Myra between ships.

Nobody knows when or how the Christian church was established in Myra. Paul had previously ministered in cities near Myra, so perhaps missionaries from one of those churches may have gone to that town. Or perhaps Paul himself was able to do some preaching while waiting for the centurion to locate a ship to take Paul to Italy.

What we do know is that the church in Myra survived until persecution came under the Emperor Diocletian. The Diocletian persecution was the most widespread and deadly harassment of Christians in Roman history. So systematic and thorough was the persecution that the emperor believed he had wiped out Christianity forever. He even minted a coin to commemorate the event.

Well into the Diocletian persecution, the church in Myra found itself without a pastor. Unable to locate a new shepherd (pastors were special targets of the emperor), the church sought counsel from neighboring pastors. These church leaders gathered in Myra to pray and to seek the Lord’s provision of a new bishop for the church. When they had exhausted every alternative, they gave themselves to a night of prayer. They asked God to send His choice as the first person to enter the church building in the morning.

In the church at Myra was a very young man names Nicholas. His parents were wealthy and privileged, and they were also Christians. Somehow they had escaped the persecution. Though no record exists of Nicholas’s conversion, he clearly was reared in the Christian faith. As he approached manhood, many opportunities were open to him in commerce and civil affairs. He sensed, however, that God had something else for him. He did not know what, but he began to pray for the Lord’s leading. Each period of prayer seemed to bring a greater sense of his unworthiness and sinfulness.

After one long night of struggle, Nicholas determined to go to the church to pray. Arriving early in the morning, he was surprised to find the building occupied by pastors from the surrounding churches. These men asked him who he was, and he replied, “I am Nicholas, a sinner.” Delighted with such a humble response, the pastors announced to Nicholas that God had called him to become the next pastor of the church. Nicholas took this as the answer to his prayers and the Lord’s direction for his life.

Though Nicholas had learned the Scriptures from his childhood, he pondered how a young man could pastor a church during persecution. He knew that Christians had to be taught to live by faith—but how could he teach them? The answer was obvious. He had to teach by modeling, and for Nicholas, modeling faith meant living in complete dependence upon God. Shortly after becoming the pastor in Myra, Nicholas gave away all of his wealth and possessions, committing himself publicly to live only by what God provided.

The city of Myra was dedicated to the worship of Diana—not the Roman goddess, but a goddess similar to Diana of the Ephesians. She was a fusion of the worst features of European and Asian deities. Nicholas abominated this goddess, but he was moved with compassion toward the people who ignorantly worshipped her. Once the persecution ended, Nicholas determined to attack this pagan worship directly. He announced publicly that he intended to demolish the temple of Diana. If she was truly a goddess, then she could stop him without human help. Day after day Nicholas carried his tools to the temple. He dismantled the whole structure stone by stone, preaching Christ while he worked. When he stood triumphant among the ruins, many of the people of Myra abandoned their paganism and turned to Christianity.

There is an old story that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea. Subsequent researches have shown that this legend is probably untrue, but Nicholas was certainly aware of Arianism. This new heresy denied that Jesus was truly God. It insisted that Jesus was the first and greatest of God’s creatures, but that He was not eternal and did not share the divine nature. The task of the Council of Nicea was to answer Arianism and expose it as a perversion of Christianity. Even if Nicholas never attended the council, he certainly agreed with its decisions. He was a true worshipper of Jesus Christ, the God-man and Savior.

Through the years many stories have been told about Nicholas of Myra. Most of these appear to be fabrications, but some might likely be true. One of these concerns a poor man who had three daughters. Because he could provide no dowry, the daughters could not marry. The father determined to sell them into prostitution as they came of age. Nicholas heard about the plan. The night before the eldest daughter was to be sold, the pastor crept to the man’s home and left a bag of gold for her dowry. As each of the daughters came of age, he duplicated this generosity. For the third daughter, however, the father was watching and caught Nicholas in the act of leaving the money. The story is that Nicholas told him about the forgiveness that Christ offers, and the man repented and became a Christian. Incidentally, the symbol of St. Nicholas is still three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold.

Whether the story is true or not, it almost certainly bears the stamp of Nicholas’s character. His generosity was legendary. That is why he became associated in myth with the giving of gifts, and that is why people still give gifts in his memory. Saint Nicholas—Santa Claus—was not a fat man in a red suit who drove a sleigh pulled by reindeer. That character was invented by Thomas Nast and other merchandisers during the late 19th Century. Saint Nicholas was a pastor. He was a man of faith, courage, and generosity. He was a true worshipper of Jesus Christ. Every indication is that he was genuinely a saint, according to the biblical definition of that term.

When children ask if I believe in Santa Claus, I tell them the truth. I most certainly do believe in him! Then I tell them who he was. More importantly, I tell them who he worshipped.

O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright

Ambrose of Milan (4th Century)
Tr. Robert S. Bridges and John M. Neale

O splendor of God’s glory bright,
O Thou that bringest light from light;
O Light of light, light’s living spring,
O day, all days illumining.

O Thou true Sun, on us Thy glance
Let fall in royal radiance;
The Spirit’s sanctifying beam
Upon our earthly senses stream.

The Father, too, our prayers implore,
Father of glory evermore;
The Father of all grace and might,
To banish sin from our delight.

To guide whate’er we nobly do,
With love all envy to subdue;
To make ill fortune turn to fair,
And give us grace our wrongs to bear.

Our mind be in His keeping placed
Our body true to Him and chaste,
Where only faith her fire shall feed,
To burn the tares of Satan’s seed.

And Christ to us for food shall be,
From Him our drink that welleth free,
The Spirit’s wine, that maketh whole,
And, mocking not, exalts the soul.

Rejoicing may this day go hence;
Like virgin dawn our innocence,
Like fiery noon our faith appear,
Nor known the gloom of twilight drear.

Morn in her rosy car is borne;
Let Him come forth our perfect morn,
The Word in God the Father one,
The Father perfect in the Son.

All laud to God the Father be;
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the holy Paraclete.


This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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There are 12 Comments

Kevin Subra's picture

I appreciate Dr. Bauder's article. I just cannot embrace the idea that we need to affirm or promote (and even celebrate) the existence of one man. Though he does not err in his comments, I do not think that our season of celebration (if we have one) has (or should have) anything to do with this gentleman.

Though it was poorly written, I did write an article a few years ago expressing what I believe are many issues that we ignore or wrongly embrace when it comes to Christmas (http://www.iarbc.net/seer/2007/2007-03%20-%20Christmas%20Confusion%20-%2...).

Though I am glad for the testimony of godly men and women that remain after their time, I do not believe such is any justification for what is largely a godless, materialistic, selfish celebration known as "Christmas" as it appears today. While each much decide for oneself, I would at least encourage people to not deceive themselves into thinking that we are in some way promoting the purpose of the coming of Savior of the world by giving our children a WII.

This season can be of great use in outreach and caring. I find a review of "Santa Claus" from history distracting from the truth at best.

(By the way, I read Dr. Bauder's articles weekly, and very much appreciate his ministry to the mind.)

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Dave Stertzbach II's picture

"Herod murdered all male children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and in its districts. Christmas was a time of great sorrow and mourning, of great loss. Where is our Christmas carol about this?"

Here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/c/o/coventry.htm

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor Youngling for Whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever morn and day
For Thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Kevin Subra wrote:
While each much decide for oneself, I would at least encourage people to not deceive themselves into thinking that we are in some way promoting the purpose of the coming of Savior of the world by giving our children a WII.

"Bah! Humbug!"
Sorry, couldn't resist.
I do have a serious question though: what criteria might one use to determine what sort of gift could serve as a celebration of the coming of the Savior? That is, what is it that makes gift-giving "materialistic"? Would we have to give non-material things? (Words of encouragement? A song?)
Is it ever OK to give a "material" gift?

Another set of questions: what if the world starts making some sort of materialistic event out of the first day of the week each week? (What if they make something hedonistic out of it instead of materialistic? We're almost there). Can we let them take Sundays from us? When should we fight for the "right" version of event and when should we say "the world has wrecked it so they can just have it to themselves"?

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Charlie's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Another set of questions: what if the world starts making some sort of materialistic event out of the first day of the week each week? (What if they make something hedonistic out of it instead of materialistic? We're almost there). Can we let them take Sundays from us? When should we fight for the "right" version of event and when should we say "the world has wrecked it so they can just have it to themselves"?

Isn't this question backwards? It seems to imply that "Christmas" really is a Christian holiday corrupted by the word. That is incorrect on both biblical and historical grounds. I don't know of any early church tradition (pre 4th century) celebrating Christ's birth, or any record of it being on Dec. 25. I'm pretty sure it's widely acknowledged that the origin of "Christmas" is the pagan festival of Saturnalia. Also, many Protestants (almost all Reformed, most Lutherans, most Baptists) refused to celebrate it for the first few centuries after the Reformation. There is no biblical command to celebrate Jesus' birth. So... I don't see how you can in any way equate Christmas (or even Advent) with Sunday worship.

I'm a (rather flawed in practice) Christian Sabbitarian in the Reformed tradition, so the world can't "take Sunday" from me. However, the world also can't "take Christmas" from Christians because it isn't in the Bible, and therefore never was truly Christian. Christians can participate in any non-sinful "Christmas" activity, just like they can participate in any non-sinful Fourth of July or Mother's Day activity. However, it's just a cultural thing, or perhaps an individual expression of spirituality. There are no such things as Christian holidays.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Charlie wrote:
Isn't this question backwards? It seems to imply that "Christmas" really is a Christian holiday corrupted by the word. That is incorrect on both biblical and historical grounds. I don't know of any early church tradition (pre 4th century) celebrating Christ's birth, or any record of it being on Dec. 25. I'm pretty sure it's widely acknowledged that the origin of "Christmas" is the pagan festival of Saturnalia.

Backwards? Yes, in several ways. Sunday worship is more or less commanded (pretty close, anyway), but there is no command to observe a celebration of the incarnation on 12/25 or any other day.
It's widely repeated that Christmas began with the pagan festival of Saturnalia, but there are actually some reasons to doubt that. But I'll concede that it does not have a commanded origin and that's really the important distinction.

But do we let everything go that the world has corrupted--even if it they had it first and it's not commanded?
I'm just exploring where the boundaries are.
I'm personally not inclined at all to let them "have" Christmas, even if it was theirs first. There is such a thing as 'redeeming the culture,' right? Many claim to believe in this. I'm often on the same page in some ways. Supposing for the sake of argument we take as fact that Christmas was a worldly celebration first, the fact remains that gazillions (to borrow a term from my kids) of Christians have used the occasion in a beautiful way for many centuries now... and recently it's gotten increasingly ugly in our decreasingly Christian culture.
Something doesn't feel right about just cutting it loose... or just cutting anything loose that has had that kind of history.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

There is pressure from all sides for Christians to 'celebrate' Christmas-if you don't observe certain traditions, fellow Christians think you are a scrooge, a heathen, or a 'legalist', and the lost world that considers Christmas a Christian holiday is surprised and confused. Even though we aren't constrained Scripturally to celebrate or memorialize anything but Christ's death and resurrection, you'd not know it by the focus, time, money, and effort put forth this time of year compared to the frequency of or enthusiasm for the Lord's Supper.

My kids and I were watching Good Eats (which you can watch for free on [URL=http://www.fancast.com/tv/Good-Eats/10545/full-episodes ]Fancast[/URL ]), and it was an episode about Christmas. He gave the history of the holiday as being a conglomeration of many traditions and practices, such as the feast of Saturnalia- pretty much what you'd see on [URL=http://www.history.com/content/christmas/the-real-story-of-christmas/ The History Channel[/URL ]. I don't think there is any doubt that Christmas is a blend of traditions from many, many cultures- some completely pagan, some benign- but I feel no compunction to celebrate any of it, in spite of the fact that people act like you've picked your nose in public if you don't have a Christmas tree.

I agree with the idea that folks can and should be educated about who Nicholas of Myra was, but I would not be comfortable encouraging the association between him and Santa Claus, and I imagine he would be horrified by many of the practices and compromises done 'in his name'.

Kevin Subra's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
I do have a serious question though: what criteria might one use to determine what sort of gift could serve as a celebration of the coming of the Savior? That is, what is it that makes gift-giving "materialistic"? Would we have to give non-material things? (Words of encouragement? A song?)

Since the point of Christ's incarnation is "to save His people from their sins," I would offer that anything that promotes this would be appropriate anytime. Celebrating the coming will really make a different the next time He stops by. Our function now is not to celebrate nearly as much as it is to be witnesses.

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Is it ever OK to give a "material" gift?

I am open for one anytime, Aaron. (Let me know if you need my street address to make UPS delivery easier...). The point I wish to make here is not an argument for or against giving gifts. I simply would say that any gift giving to "celebrate the coming of the Savior" has no Biblical merit (or possible eternal reward). The only gift that ultimately matters to anyone is Jesus Himself, as God's Sacrificial Lamb. If we give gifts for Christmas, at least acknowledge that there is no Biblical mandate or warrant for such, and acknowledge that by and large (if not almost completely) such gift-giving distracts from God's point. We are not automatically doing "good" because we bury ourselves in stuff. Jesus did not come to give us abundant belongings, but to bless us with eternal riches through His own life. He came to give us life, and to give us life more abundant. We already know from many of His teachings that He was not referring to material possessions. ("Life does not consist of...")

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Another set of questions: what if the world starts making some sort of materialistic event out of the first day of the week each week? (What if they make something hedonistic out of it instead of materialistic? We're almost there). Can we let them take Sundays from us? When should we fight for the "right" version of event and when should we say "the world has wrecked it so they can just have it to themselves"?

Our actions should be dictated by the Word, not by the world. I would say that most of our Christmas traditions come from embracing the world. Specifically which "events" would we ever fight for? Even the "first day of the week" is not mandated. Gathering together is, but not the day itself.

Let me know if you need my address. ;>D

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Kevin Subra's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
I'm personally not inclined at all to let them "have" Christmas, even if it was theirs first.

What makes you think that "they" don't already "have Christmas?" It is a focus of fuzzy feeling mixed with materialism and selfishness. A holiday is not the point of Christianity ever. It is the ongoing proclamation and practice of the Gospel.

Further, "them" is "us" much of the time. We are consumed with consumerism. We are friends with the world (and thus enemies of Christ). We justify our sin (lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and the pride of life) by some surface religion. Singing a cantata doesn't sanctify a holiday that the world embraces (especially when we are largely just like them). Carrying out the Great Commission and denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Him does. (I wonder if they have that in a WII version...)

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Jim's picture

http://jewishworldreview.com/cols/will112609.php3

Tell this to your kids:

Quote:
Gifts that people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to the recipients' preferences. What the recipients would willingly pay for the gifts is usually less than the givers paid. The measure of the inefficiency of allocating value by gift-giving is the difference between the yield of satisfaction per dollar spent on gifts and the yield per dollar spent on the recipients' own purchases.

-------
I'm always at a loss as to what to by my mother (now 89 1/2). I sent her a check and asked her to go out and shop for new clothes. She was very pleased.

Kevin Subra's picture

Thanks Dave. In our day, maybe something more pointed would be even better.

That time of year was no doubt a time of mourning for many for years to come (and a time of fear until Herod died).

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Dave Stertzbach II's picture

except that if we are going to fuss that the wise men weren't actually at the manger, then we can't assert that "Christmas was a time of great sorrow and mourning, of great loss." Some folks believe that it was actually years later that the slaying of the innocents occured?

Anyway, Paul deals so directly with the matter of holiday preferences that most of my opinions are so much hot air. Clearly, my friends are able to make a spiritual choice to esteem one day above another without me questioning their motives.

Dave

James Bliss's picture

Regardless of the many comments regarding the issues with Christmas, Santa Claus and the historical background, it is a wonderful time to mention Christ to many people. It is a great opportunity to show the joy which a Christian should display in their life, the happiness. Yes, we should display this attitude at all times, but this provides us an easy opportunity to talk to complete strangers, say 'Merry Christmas', and mention the gift God gave us through Christ. All can be done in 2 or 3 sentences. The story of Nicholas may be historically significant, but the celebration of Christmas involves the birth of Christ and the season should be used to spread the word of Christ as we live our Christian lives, taking advantage of the season to mention it with greater ease than at other times.

Christmas is also a wonderful time to spend with friends and family, both saved and unsaved. To display what our faith has provided to us through God's grace.

Santa Claus is just a figure created by the society and merchants to sell. I know very few children who truly believe in Santa Claus, much less 'worship' him. The largest handful of children which I see who 'believe' in Santa Clause are those in need who are desperate for anything (whether materially well off or not). Again, this is a wonderful season to help them and introduce them to Christianity. Then to continue to help these children through the year as may be appropriate under the circumstances, as guided by God and Christ.

I find that I should take advantage of the opportunities this season provides to easily state the message of Christ rather than lament the manner in which our society has commercialized the celebration. It provides many opportunities to bring out the truth and display what true Christian living provides. This is an opportunity to help others prosper in their journey towards and with Christ.

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