The Night the Secular Stole Christmas

The sacred space that Christmas once occupied in celebrating the birth of Christ seems to be disappearing at a rapid pace, leaving in its place a festival void of all religious value. For the millions that partake in this festive event each year, Christmas has been reduced to its warm sentimentalities such as the decorated trees, the pandemonium of last minute shopping, the exchanging of gifts and the family gathered round the dinner table. It has been suggested that relatively few people ‘have any idea of the process by which the heathen elements have become mingled with that which is obviously Christian, and equal obscurity prevails as to the nature and meaning of the non-Christian customs.’

Addressing the culture’s readiness to remove anything remotely Christian from this religious observance may begin to shed light on why so many varying faith groups feel at ease partaking in the celebrations. There was a time when a robust Christian theological framework was a prerequisite for celebrating a Christian festival. Indeed, there are many contributing factors to consider when trying to map out a clear trajectory of how we reached this juncture.

This melting pot of worldviews came to a head in 17th century when religious leaders known as the Puritans banned Christmas on account of its unbiblical origin and put forward a motion to view Christmas as a day of repentance as opposed to a day for idle feasting. Even in Britain, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, Christmas was removed from the list of holy days with the threat of imprisonment hanging over ministers who preached on Christmas Day. The contention around Christmas continued well into the 19th century when Christmas Day became an official bank holiday.

These frequent attacks on Christmas often seem to be guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is plausible that the church set 25 December as the date in which to celebrate Christmas as a rebuttal of the winter solstice and the festival Saturnalia held in honour of the Roman deity Saturn. This festival began on 17 December under the reign of the Emperor Augustus but by the end of the empire had progressively extended to seven days, ending on 24 December. Saturnalia existed as a gathering and a communion of sorts where participants enjoyed gambling, feasting, the exchanging of gifts and an affinity for spending money. The Greek philosopher Libanius remarks that it eventually gave rise to a heightened sense of materialism among the Roman elite.

Saturnalia brought with it a reversal in societal norms with distinctions between social class and status being set aside. Slaves were permitted to dine with their masters in a banquet usually reserved for the privileged.  It is important to note that these elements that are entrenched in our understanding of a modern Christmas were hallmarks of a pagan worldview long before Christianity was established. Against this backdrop, Kelly (2004) rightly points out that “Christmas provides a sense of prayerful or at least moral behaviour in sharp contrast to pagan license”.

Brumalia, which began on 25 December was essentially a feast to commemorate the shortest day. As the cold winter season became an obstacle to the livelihood of Roman citizens within agriculture and hunting, Brumalia was a time where people would offer sacrifices to the deity Saturn through intermediary priests. This was then followed by Sigillaria, where parents gave dolls to their children. Though there are similarities between the two religions, Golby and Purdue (2000) state: “the pagan winter festivals were closely linked with the affirmation of man’s relationship with the forces of nature and his ability to placate and encourage them’ whereas Christianity presented nature as being subordinate to its creator and emphasising the importance of Jesus’ birth.”

From the year 280 until 342 A.D, a bishop was vested to govern the region of Myra located in what was formerly Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). During his lifetime, he lived to see three emperors ascend to the throne – Diocletian, Maximilian, and Constantine. This bishop was born to wealthy parents who tragically died while he was still young leaving him a small fortune. During the Emperor Diocletian and Maximilian’s persecution of Christianity, he was exiled and imprisoned. In 325, he was invited by the request of Constantine to attend the council of Nicea to help wave off the Arian heresy sweeping through the church. Throughout his life he became renowned for his humanitarian work and acts of generosity. His name was Nikolaos of Myra. Today, depending on where you are in the world, you may know him by one of his many monikers – In France he is Pere Noel, in Germany and Austria he is Christkind, but to the majority of people he is Santa Claus.

Many erroneous falsehoods have fed the legend of Santa Claus, who far removed from the real historical figure of Nikolaos, has re-emerged as a mythic being who for the most part, ‘seems to be descended from a hodge podge of figures, none of whom have any connection to Christmas or Jesus of Nazareth’ (Lowe 2010:2) The term Santa Claus first became embedded in our conscience, when ‘Old Sancteclaus’ became the central theme of a 1821 book entitled ‘The Children’s Friend, in which he appears on Christmas Eve. As if back by popular demand, he makes a second appearance in Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 prose ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas, this time furnished with a reindeer and sleigh and an ability to climb down chimneys.

Santa Claus brings with him a deluge of issues and concerns. In a culture that are all too happy to disseminate lies to young children, Santa is now presented as an alternative to Jesus, a redeemer figure. In the eyes of the impressionable, his red robes exude importance and a certain majestic quality while his long white beard denotes age, maturity, wisdom and experience. As well as being omniscient as relayed in the festive jingle, ‘he knows when you’re naughty or nice’ as if attaining a sort of Christ like judicial office whereby he can judge the hearts and motives of children, Santa Claus harnesses the ability to perform miracles. Restad (1995) suggests that “Santa combined characteristics of God, Jesus, and human parents into a presence embodying love, generosity, good humour, and transcendence”.

In some ways this image of Santa helps to perpetuate society’s bent for materialistic greed where he is able to provide every child’s desire with a resounding ‘yes’. Restad demonstrates a poor framework for the message of Christmas when he said: “the Santa myth made available a person that could further the child’s understanding of religion and fortify symbolically the parents own sense of the same”. It still remains that if parents together with educational and religious institutions fail to make clear distinctions in highlighting the person and work of Jesus, the sanctity of Christmas will forever be lost to us.