LIKE all kids, I used to wonder how a corpulent Santa Claus managed to squeeze himself down the chimney.
He must have had a right old job at our house, as we didn’t have a chimney at all. Still, my stocking was always filled come dawn, and that was all that mattered.
Recently, a trend has developed in some Christian denominations to de-mythologise Christmas and send Santa into permanent retirement.
Those who support this move say that Santa, his elves and reindeer detract from the real meaning behind Christmas; the birth of Jesus. Those who oppose it say that the other lot are just a bunch of kill-joys. So, what is the truth behind Santa Claus?
The real Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in Greece, who was known for his benevolence towards the less fortunate.
The Dutch name for Saint Nicholas was Sinter Klaas, from which the name Santa Claus derived. Santa then went through numerous folkloric transformations until he became the portly, red-suited beardie we know today.
And that, dear readers, is where the problem lies. Some of the characteristics of the modern Santa had their origins in ancient Germanic mystery cults and Norse mythology. Bits of Santa’s persona owe their existence to the Norse god Odin, for example, and some Christians understandably feel uncomfortable about mixing their own Judaeo-Christian festivities with paganism.
The idea that Santa isn’t really saint Nicholas, but Odin dressed up in a natty red two-piece, causes all sorts of theological and ethical issues to rear their heads.
Now although it’s true that literally hundreds of our customs have their origins in ancient times, I can understand the consternation of my Christian friends who feel that incorporating pagan deities into the celebration of the birth of Christ troubles their collective conscience way too much.
Another problem is that the non-Christian elements of the traditional Christian and New year festivities don’t stop with Santa.
The Yule Log, the Christmas tree and even the Christmas pudding all have pagan origins. In fact, there’s probably more of a pagan influence in Christmas than there is a Christian one. It reminds me of the old joke about the chap who said, “I love Christmas. I just wish they wouldn’t spoil it by bringing Jesus into it.”
Even Christmas Day is rooted in paganism. If the Biblical Gospels are to be believed, Jesus was born in October, not December.
In fact, the overall evidence suggests he was born in late April or March. However, between 19-26 of December the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a booze and food-filled festival in which they paid homage to the god Saturn.
Later, when the Roman empire was Christianised, numerous pagan festivals were given a Christian gloss. Saturnalia was subjected to a few tweaks and became Christmas, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now as a Muslim I don’t celebrate Christmas, so I’m not faced with the thorny issue of where to draw the line when it comes to what to tell the kids. I’m certainly no kill-joy, but I think the reformers have a point when they say that enough is enough, and that its time we told the young’uns the truth about where those presents really came from.
I think the danger is that Santa Claus, despite his cute image and jolly “ho-ho-ho” guffaw, buries some very profound truths about the person that Christmas is really supposed to be about; Jesus, the son of Mary. Sorry Santa, but I’ll plump for the real story every time.
Personally I think it’s far more awe-inspiring than the idea of a guy in a red suit being dragged hither and thither on a sleigh pulled by Pringle, Tingle, Doughnut and Pax- man.
Regardless, I hope that over the festive break you will relax, enjoy some quality time with your family and friends and that “peace towards all men of goodwill” starts to mean something.
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