When I was attending Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas—the precise year and semester, I have forgotten—I met the first opposition to Santa Claus. I had known that there were people who did not believe in the “Christmas Man”; my parents had explained to me that such people did exist in the world. But the opposition I met at college from among some of my fellow students was different. It was not unbelief; it was the idea that the “jolly old elf” was somehow destructive of the Catholic mentality. The way it was explained to me by several people—including an old girlfriend—was that Santa took attention and emphasis away from Jesus. All the talk of the North Pole, elves, the toyshop, the list of good and bad children, the sled and the reindeer and the Christmas Eve flight around the world diverted eyes and hearts away from the “reason for the season” and, as such, was best left in the rubbish heap along with the discarded remains of the Christmas tree. St. Nicholas was a different story. He, being an actual, historical person, a bishop of Myra, and an attendant of the Nicaean Council, was perfectly welcome as just another member of the communion of saints.
Just recently, I stumbled upon a kindred point of view in an essay by Joseph Pearce. Mr. Pearce declared that while he had no qualms about Father Christmas, he could not be at ease with Santa and any attempts to equate the jolly elf with the regal figure of Father Christmas, did not quite know the difference between the two; as Mr. Pearce said, one is British and the other American which, despite some similarities are two very different things.
With all due deference to Mr. Pearce, I believe that he is mistaken. It is true that the personage of Father Christmas is much older than his counter-part in America but then that should only be expected since England is older than the United States. The first appearance of Father Christmas has disappeared as fully as the grass after the first snow whereas the appearance of Santa Claus can be pinpointed to Clement Moore’s “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” Despite these differences, it can be said that Father Christmas and Santa Claus are, in a sense, the same, just different aspects or appearances of the same person, much as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Japan all appear different but are all simply different appearances of Our Lady. In the case of Santa Clause and Father Christmas, both are appearances of St. Nicholas.
Because of the legend which retells how St. Nicholas when bishop, secretly snuck in and gave each of three sisters a bar of gold so that they would not have to be sold (either into slavery or prostitution, the legend varies) St. Nicholas was, as early as the Middle Ages, recognized for his gift-giving, with none but the Angelic Doctor himself praising the liberality of Nicholas, thus using him as an example of Christian charity and love of neighbor. As has been told many times before, the Dutch celebrated Nicholas, not only as a gift-giver but in his role as the patron of sailors, as Sinterklaas, the Dutch for St. Nicholas. What is not as well known is that Sinterklaas was in America long before Moore’s poem was penned. New York businessman and amateur historian, John Pintard, worked to have the state recognize its Dutch roots, including Sinterklaas, in 1810, distributing a pamphlet that showed Sinterklaas dressed as a bishop and dispensing presents.
At the same time, a new member of the New York Historical Society, Washington Irving, decided to write a tongue-in-cheek history of Dutch New York under the pseudonym of Dietrich Knickerbocker in which St. Nicholas is mentioned some two dozen times. It was with these events, as well some other elements, such as the legends of Scandinavian gnomes, that Moore wrote his poem, which was first entitled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Santa Claus, as has often been said, is simply the American name for Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for St. Nicholas the Gift-giver. Father Christmas, who also gives gifts (mostly beautifully described by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is simply, in this writer’s humble opinion, the British guise that St. Nicholas takes on that ancient island.
It may still be objected that Moore described Santa as an “elf” which might show that his Santa Claus is someone entirely different from St. Nicholas. The trouble is that when we hear “elf” our minds conjure an image of the little people who sometimes sit on our shelves at this same time of year. But “elf” is far deeper word and cannot be confined merely to that species: Tolkien’s elves are mysterious, wise and powerful beyond that of men or hobbits and the faei of Irish legend come in all shapes and sizes, a fact that Lloyd Alexander put to very good use in the Chronicles of Prydain. Calling Santa an elf can simply mean that he is, in some way, otherworldly, which, of course, all saints are which is why they always stand out, even the most unobtrusive ones. They know better than most that there is an Other Place (Heaven which, as Dante says, resides in the Mind of God) and strive more than most to get there and a sliver of that other place falls and latches onto them so that they never seem to quite fit in.
That Santa Claus and Father Christmas and Sinterklaas and Pere Noel are all guises of St. Nicholas should be enough to demonstrate that there is no harm in teaching children to believe in Santa Claus, but objections might still be raised: Santa is not only part of commercialization of Christmas but is the captain of the grand coup that aims to displace Christ from his own Birthday; others might say that even granted that Santa is the American form of Nicholas the Gift-giver, he is still make-believe, a myth and, as such, not only unworthy to be taught to children as real but dangerous. What will happen, after all, when children discover that Santa is just a bunch of humbug?
It’s true that poor old Santa has been co-opted to be the generalissimo of commercialized Christmas but, as William Bennet argued in his book, The True St. Nicholas, that, in and of itself, is no reason to exorcize him from the Christmas tree. Just because something is secular does not make it automatically bad and, more to the point, anything good will, more than likely, be exploited. As Bennet, again, reminds us, St. Nicholas was arguably just as exploited during the heights of his veneration as Santa is now; he was claimed by sailors, fighters, children, bakers, even thieves and was called upon for anything from a successful and profitable voyage, to finding a good husband. The town of Bari, Italy, even stole his bones so that it could be the center of his veneration. More to the crux of the matter: Santa Claus is, of course, a myth. He is unabashedly mythological but that does not make him false or a humbug; Santa Claus is real for the very reason that he is a myth. The problem is not that Santa is a myth; the problem, rather, is that, just like the word “elf,” the word “myth” has been shrunk beyond its rightful banks.
When the word is mentioned today, one’s mind is immediately brought to the old stories of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans; the tales of the Norse, the Germans, Persians and Chinese, perhaps even some of the stories from the American Indian tribes. The one element which all these stories from different times and cultures share, we are told, is that they are all false, all make-believe. But that is looking at things backward. Myths and mythological figures are not false but real. Mythology, as G.K. Chesterton put it in his book, The Everlasting Man, is poetical truth; it is the striving of the imagination to the true, good, and beautiful. It very often does not encompass the whole truth but it snatches up some of it. Chesterton even used Father Christmas himself as an example of this, saying that Father Christmas was more than just fallen snow and holly and cheer; he is bigger and warmer than all that.
J.R.R. Tolkien said much the same thing in his lecture, “On Fairy Stories” at one point in which he argued that while Arthur was more than likely a real man, he had been so stewed in the “cauldron of story” that he was now far bigger and more real than he was in the few mentions he had in the history books. Far realer things were to be found in stories, said Tolkien, than were to be found in the real world because they stood for real things. An ogre’s castle, in this case, was more real than a lamppost because it was an incarnation of real evil. It was because of this essence of myth that C.S. Lewis could say, as brilliantly as ever, that Christianity was a myth like Greek and Roman myths; what set it apart from all the others was the fact that it had actually happened, the myth had come down and touched the earth. Saying that Santa Claus is a myth, therefore, is acknowledging his reality that resides on a much bigger plane than what we are usually accustomed.
Because he is a guise of St. Nicholas and because he is a real myth, there should be no qualms in regards to teaching children to believe in Santa Claus. The genius of Catholicism is that, like the Tardis, it is always bigger on the inside. The very word “Catholic” means universal; universal not only in the sense that the Church is for all times, places and people, but that it always is bringing that which is true, good and beautiful from other cultures and religions into itself. The Church baptized Samhain and the beliefs that came with it in Ireland and made it Hallowe’en or All Hallows Eve; the Church baptized the fir trees that Germanic families brought into their abodes and taught them Christ through their tradition; the Church did not fight but used images and places familiar to the Huron Indians to teach them about Jesus, from which came the Huron Carol. If there is room for fir trees, holly, mistletoe and Hallowe’en in the Church and in Catholic hearts, surely there is room for Santa Claus.
Not only that but belief in Santa is good for children. My grandfather used to say that cats are like people but angels are like dogs and one of the wonderful things about dogs is their sense of wonder: what dog owner has come home not to see his four-legged friend at the door, whining and tail wagging in the pure ecstasy of seeing his human again? Some people would chalk that up to the stupidity of animals; I take it as a sign of their innate wonder in the same things. Children are supposed to have this same sense of wonder, the same sense that made Chesterton call to his wife in the joy of seeing again that the grass was green. The mythology of Santa Claus is a natural means of expanding wonder, for what could be more wonderful to the child’s heart than a man, a saint, who delivers presents on Christmas Eve to good children, a precursor to the Great Gift-Giver who gives himself to us? Not only children but adults should strive to rekindle in their hearts the belief in Santa Clause and adapt a more child-like faith and belief, to see the “bigness” of the world again. As Charles Dickens said, it is good to sometimes be children and never better than at Christmastide.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Santa at the Map” painted by Norman Rockwell for the December 16, 1939 Saturday Evening Post.