Santa Claus is Pagan
Most educated people are aware that Christmas celebrations traditionally incorporate pagan elements such as the Christmas tree and even the date of the celebration itself. But supposedly Santa Claus is not a pagan element because he is based on the Catholic Saint Nicholas. Perhaps that is how it started, but I would argue that the tradition of Santa Claus today is more emphatically pagan than any originally pagan tradition that Christianity has borrowed.
Look at how much Saint Nick has changed over the years. If you ask a child, will they tell you that Saint Nicholas of Myra was a bishop born in modern day Turkey in the 300s AD? Do they know that he first became connected with children and gift giving when he provided a destitute family with dowries by anonymously throwing sacks of coins through their open window, thus saving the daughters from prostitution? Of course not. Santa Claus came to the United States from the Byzantine Empire via the Dutch. The European legends seem to have confused him somewhat with the god Odin. This helps explain certain details such as the flying reindeer and his general appearance. Popular writers in the nineteenth century gave Santa his current name and brought him into the public consciousness. In an organic process, his familiar traits were established and built upon. By the time advertisers got ahold of him in the early 20th century, Santa Claus was a familiar figure.
So Santa Claus is pretty far removed from his saintly origins. Does that make him pagan? Let's look at the well known "facts" about Santa's existence:
1. He sees you when you're sleeping and when you're awake. He brings coal to children who have been bad, but he rewards the good with thier fondest wishes. Not only is he omniscient, his role is to judge and reward or punish as he sees fit.
2. Children are encouraged to petition him for things they want. This practice is functionally similar to prayer. Children also ply him with ritualized offerings, milk and cookies, as a last minute effort to obtain favor.
3. Santa never dies. He lives in a real place that is nevertheless inaccesible to most mortals, reminiscent of Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. He is the leader of a small pantheon of beings with extraordinary powers.
What's fascinating to me is that all of these elements--the North Pole, the names of the reindeer, Mrs. Claus and the elves, letters to Santa, the list, milk and cookies--arose in the United States within the last 200 years. American pop culture created this semi-diety and all the ritual surrounding him. And the only reason I prefix diety with semi is because we expect children to grow out of their belief eventually no matter how often we repeat the myths. The original meaning of the Christmas tree and the Yule log have been obscured to the point where we barely acknowledge them. But apparently, paganism can turn around and appropriate Christian figures just as easily.
This is not meant to be an attack on anyone's holiday traditions. I merely suggest that you think about why you do what you do.
- The Origin of Santa Claus and the Christian Response to Him
By a Lutheran scholar. Goes into much more historical detail than I do.
- Santa Claus
A history of the American Santa Claus.
- Saint Nicholas
A biography of Saint Nicholas from a Catholic viewpoint.
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