It’s true. The Christmas Holiday has always been a controversial one, down through the centuries. Have you ever wondered how we moved from Jesus in a manger to Santa Claus in a sleigh? It’s fascinating to know that during the Christmas season, more Christians attend parties than any other time of year and more secular people will go to more church services than any other time of year. The Christmas experience resonates in the hearts of all people. Today, I’m sharing three things you may not know about the history of our special Christmas tradition!
#1: When did the church start celebrating Christmas?
First, the early church emphasized the Easter celebration, but did not celebrate Christmas for the first 250 years after Jesus’ birth. There was a part of the church that began to emphasize the divinity of Jesus and they began to deny that He was ever a man. The other part of the church disagreed, so the celebration of Jesus’ birth began in order to emphasize that Jesus was a man and not just God.
#2: Why December 25?
Second, as worshippers of the sun, the Roman Empire was the first to have a celebration on December 25. It was on this day that they celebrated the sun’s return and longer days, with a huge party. The Bible does not give an actual date of Jesus’ birth, but the church decided it was important to begin celebrating the coming of God’s Son. Later, when the Puritans took control of England in the 1600s, they actually outlawed Christmas! It was illegal to celebrate Christmas in England. You couldn’t close your shop and take the day off, you had to work. If you were caught decorating your home, they would set it on fire. There were even laws in New England that said, if you were caught eating figgy pudding on December 25, you would be fined! They weren’t able to keep the spirit of Christmas down for long! There is something special that calls out to the hearts of all people and the celebration of Christmas ultimately came back as we celebrate, today.
#3: What does Santa Clause have to do with the birth of Jesus?
Have you ever wondered how Santa Claus became such a central part of Christmas? You probably know that Santa Claus was inspired by a real person, Saint Nicholas. What we know about him is a blend of fact and legend. Saint Nicholas was born about 280 in Lycia, which is now modern day Turkey. We believe he was born to a Christian family, that his mother and father were devout and wealthy. For many years his mother had prayed to have a child and finally they conceived. When Nicholas was born, they considered it a gift from God. He grew up to be a very religious young man and we believe his parents died in the plague. Nicholas inherited the family fortune and was moved with great compassion and love for others because of his love for Christ.
There is a story that when he was a young man, his neighbor was a widower with three daughters. They had no money for a dowry for the daughters to get married and would be sold into slavery and prostitution. Nicholas was so moved with compassion that he took some of his gold coins, wrapped them in three bags and at night went by and threw them into the window, anonymously. It is believed that when Diocletian was Emperor, that Saint Nicholas was persecuted and put in prison. When Constantine became the Emperor of Rome and Nicholas was Bishop of Myra and was called to Nicea for a council of churches. Soon after his death on December 6, 341, he was made a saint by the church and became the most popular saint in the church because of his love and generosity for the poor. By the 12th century in the church, there was now Jesus, Mary and Saint Nicholas, the most popular patron saint.
When the Reformation came along in the 1500s, they tried to do away with sainthood, but Saint Nicholas stayed very popular throughout all of Europe, especially in Holland with the Dutch. As the Dutch people began coming to New York, they referred to Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus, a derivative of Saint Nicholas. It was in 1809 that Washington Irving wrote a book, “The History of New York City.” It was suppose to be a spoof of a story in which he talks about St. Nick and Santa Claus and a man who rides in a wagon carrying loads of toys, flying over the trees in order to distribute them to the children. It was so popular that in 1822, Reverend Clement Moore, a professor of Hebrew wrote a poem for his three children. The night he read the poem to his family, they happened to have a visitor in their home and the lady was so impressed, she asked for a copy. We don’t know whether it was with permission or not, but she took it to a newspaper and in 1823 it was published in many newspapers under the name, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It caught on and became so popular that people began to draw caricatures of Santa Clause. By September 21, 1897, an eight year old girl named Virginia wrote The Sun newspaper asking, “Is there really a Santa Claus?” To which they answered, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Cluase and if you’ve seen it in The Sun, you know it to be so.” Coca-Cola then picked up the caricatures of Santa Cluase as their new marketing personality, firmly establishing Santa Clause as part of American culture.
While Santa Claus was created by Washington Irving and Reverend Clement Moore, he was inspired by the real life of Saint Nicholas, a loving, generous man who gave to children and others in need because of his faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. It is Jesus Christ who is the reason for the season; it is that spirt of Christ that you see all down through history, whether in Saint Nicholas or Santa Clause. It is the miracle of love.