Jolly Old Saint Nick
Father Christmas. Santa Claus. Saint Nick.
Whatever name he goes by in your mind, there’s no escaping this jolly, overweight, present-giving, bearded man at this time of year. For you it may start when the Coca-Cola ad comes on during I’m a Celebrity. Or maybe you pass this man in red as you attempt to navigate around the queues of children waiting to see him as you innocently attempt your Christmas shopping. Whilst we all might say we don’t believe in him anymore, there’s no denying that there’s no one more influential on our Christmas season.
Since when did Santa become more important than Jesus?
Don’t worry, I’m not here to play Scrooge. But is there more to our myth of Father Christmas than reindeer, elves and a toy workshop at the North Pole?
You’ll have heard it before that the character of Father Christmas or Santa Claus is one that has its roots in a man hundreds of years ago called Nicholas – Saint Nicholas. He lived in modern day Turkey around 3rd and 4th Century AD and was Bishop of Myra. There are various stories and traditions that we have concerning his life, and these largely involve his generosity. One story tells of how he by cover of night gave three bags of gold coins to a poor man to pay the dowry for his three daughters. What a saint! St Nick became known for secret gift-giving. Tradition tells us he would put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and you can see how this has developed into leaving out stockings for Santa.
Generosity is great but there is something else worth knowing in the myth of St Nicholas.
In 325 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine called together the Council of Nicaea in which bishops from all over the empire were to meet to discuss matters of church teaching. One of the issues at stake was regarding the nature of the Son of God in relation to God the father. (Whilst the Christian understanding of the trinity was largely settled, some were still getting their heads muddled!) Simply and crudely put there was the position put forth by Arius who believed that in order for Jesus to be God’s Son he must have come after the Father and be in some way less God than the Father. On the contrary there were those who insisted that the Father and the Son are both equal in being God and in both existing eternally.
Legend has it that as the debate grew heated, St Nicholas in his zeal for God’s truth, punched the soon to be labelled heretic Arius in the face!
Whilst the account of Nicholas punching Arius is very much is the stuff of myth and legend, it appears there’s much more to the roots of Father Christmas than giving presents - there is a passion for the correct knowledge of God and the glory of Jesus Christ! Whilst I certainly can’t condone a violent response to theological disagreement, there is something admirable in his defence of God’s truth.
This Christmas time when we see the bearded overweight man in a red suit, rather than play the Scrooge, perhaps we might remember in some way, that this man stands in a tradition of standing up for God by punching heretics!