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Old Saint Nick

Pastor Robin Fish
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church  
Laurie, MO

Thu, Dec 1, 2005 

Santa Claus has been an American fascination for more than a century.  He is Christmas to most Americans.  The myth of Santa is an example of how false doctrine works.

The name "Santa Claus" is the result of a hurried and imprecise pronunciation of "Saint Nicholas" (or some say of "Sinterklaas").  He borrows elements of his mythical appearance from the original Christmas saint - the white beard and the red outfit, although both have transformed into something unique.  Saint Nicholas was a real person - a bishop in the church in the fourth century (he died in 352 A.D.).  He was bishop in Myra, in what is modern-day Turkey.  The red clothes and the hat come from the robes of the bishop and the mitre - the crown-like hat bishops wear.  The beard was traditional for bishops in that day - and he is pictured with a beard in almost every representation.  In most countries, however, St.  Nicholas is thin, not chubby, and religious figure (still a bishop) not like our secular Santa, styled by Clement Moore as "a right jolly old elf".

In Germany, he is called Saint Nicholaus.  In the Netherlands, he is Sinterklaas, a shortening of Sint Nicolaas.  Since he died on December 6, that date is traditionally his feast-day.  Children in the Netherlands (and some other places in Europe) celebrate his day with gifts - and they often leave a boot outside their door for Sinterklaas to fill with gifts and candy.  Their "gift day", then, is separate from the Feast of the Holy Nativity (Christmas).  In England Santa is also known as Father Christmas, in France, Pere Noel, in Brazil he is Papa Noel, and in China, Dun Che Lao Ren - The Old Man of Christmas.

The custom of gift-giving in connection with Saint Nick is part of the legend.  It is said that there were three sisters whose family was so poor that their father could give no dowry for them to be married, and so he was going to be forced (as legend has it) to sell them into prostitution.  Bishop Nicholas heard of their plight and when the time came for the first to be married, he threw a bag of gold into the house for her dowry.  He did the same with the second daughter.  When the third daughter came to marriage age, Nicholas tried dropping the gold down into the house through the chimney (so as to remain anonymous).  The father caught him doing so, and the Bishop pleaded with the father to keep his secret.  Word got out, and so now it is customary in some lands to thank St. Nicholas for any gift that is received unexpectedly.

When he dropped the purse of gold coins down the chimney, they say that there were stockings hung near the fireplace to dry, and the gold landed in one of them - and so arose the custom of filling stockings with gifts and such in honor of St. Nicholas.

Over the years, we have imbued Santa with some divine attributes.  "He sees you when you're sleeping.  He knows when you're awake.  He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." We have invested the mythical elf with omniscience, given him the authority to be judge - albeit in a less-than-final way, and by giving him the ability to visit every home in one night, a form of omnipresence.  For many people, Santa Claus is as close to religion as they come.  Our culture invests a great deal into maintaining the belief in Him.  Over a century ago, a New York Times editorial answered a letter from a young girl with the profound, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" that we have all heard quoted in brief, if not heard read in its entirety several times.  Countless Christmas specials repeat the legends and myths to teach our children.  Departments stores often employ a seasonal temp to play Santa.  I just watched the DVD of the Polar Express, a movie predicated on the notion that it is good to believe in Santa.

As I said earlier, for many Americans, Santa Claus is Christmas!  He is often invoked as 'the spirit of the season'.  People get downright maudlin about the poor child who grows up without knowing Santa Claus.

But Christmas is not about the mythical figure.  It is about the hard and cold reality (some would say 'warm and soft') of the incarnation of Christ.  God sent His Son into the world, to take on human nature and flesh and blood and become a man - the way we all do, by being born as an infant.  He is the true Spirit of Christmas, and its meaning.  He is also true God and will stand as Judge of all mankind on the last day.  He truly "sees you when you're sleeping" and "knows when you're awake".  He also knows if you've been bad or good - and the answer is always "bad".  That is, the answer is always "sinner".

His religion, however, is not a religion of law ("so be good for goodness' sake") but of Gospel and grace and forgiveness and salvation.  He not only gives gifts - He is the gift at Christmastime!  When one has such a marvelous reality to cling to and proclaim, one must wonder why the silly myth?  Where is the urgency for every child to know the Christ Child?  Why are there not tears shed for every child who does not know the reality of Christmas instead of the myth?

That's where the lesson about false doctrine comes in.  False doctrine often presents itself as something mild and harmless.  I mean, who could be upset with a kindly legend about a genuinely fine Christian bishop?  Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and was marked to be among the faithful - anti-Arian.  He is held by tradition to be a kind and generous man.  How could it be offensive to remember this good man and his faith?

The answer is, it is not.  But then the myth begins - the "legend" that does not honor the man, but plays to our fantasies.  Even that is not truly harmful, but the distance from Saint Nicholas of Myra to Santa Claus, from the religion for which the good saint contended and the religion which has gathered itself around the mythical elf is significant.  No single step is, by itself, troubling or evil, and yet the result is a universal and culturally acceptable myth which stands at the center of the day set aside to observe one of the most profound mysteries of the Christian faith - the Incarnation of Christ.

Is the wonder of God taking on human flesh and blood and being born as one of us so common or unimpressive that we need a cartoon creature to make the day interesting?  I don't think so.

Are children so strangely designed that the complexities of the myth of Santa Claus are easier to remember than the wonders of the Christmas manger, the choir of angels in the sky, and the visit of the Magi?  No, that is not it either.

The truth is that the unbelieving world has taken hold of our holiday and hijacked it for their own purposes.  Why should the pagan not be able to enjoy the delights of Christmas that the believer enjoys!?  The answer is: because they are pagans!  Unbelievers don't celebrate the mysteries of the faith because they don't believe them! 

When you refuse to believe that you are a sinner - and so need forgiveness - you don't see the birth of the Savior as something special - or necessarily as something real.  When you need to escape the consciousness of the day of judgment, and the Judge Himself, you will find it hard to get all jolly about His birth.  The one who denies that there is a God is going to have trouble celebrating the coming of God into human flesh to redeem us from our sins and the condemnation we so justly deserve.  Naturally, then, the meaning and the true joy of the holiday are lost on those who are not Christian.

The 'false doctrine' has arisen to hide the truth from those who don't want to face it.  Now, it is their right as Americans - indeed, as humans - to reject Christ and refuse to believe.  People have been doing it for centuries.  It is not their right, however, to demand that our faith accommodate them or disguise itself for their pleasure and advantage, while we suffer the disadvantage of a mixed confession.

Disadvantage?  Are there disadvantages for believers?  Yes.

Every Christmas, we have the opportunity of this season of the profound mystery of the Incarnation to share with those who are shut out by unbelief what the season is all about - - except that they all know .  .  .  Santa Claus.  They have the gift thing, and they have the days off from work, and they have the parties, and they have no need for the "trappings of religion".  And too often our conduct at this time of year re-enforces their unbelief because we play at the religion of Santa right along with them.

Our children grow up with Santa, and Rudolph, and Frosty, and the entire host of distractions we have invented to fill up our holiday, as though the reality of 'Immanuel' were a porridge too poor and thin for the season.  The colors and the lights have a seasonal significance for us, but I am not aware of a theological significance.  Christmas has become the day of swapping gifts but the excitement is all too often in the gifts and not in the Gift.

Nothing I am saying here is intended to stop anyone from enjoying the 'glitter' of the season.  I intend only to use the myth of Saint Nicholas-become-Santa-Claus to illustrate how doctrine can morph from what is true and wholesome into something false and destructive if we do not pay attention - and work at maintaining the wholesome truth.

False doctrine always starts with the truth, and applies just a little change.  It is styled as personal, harmless - and idiosyncracy.  There is no offense intended.  This small thing is just a personal opinion or preference.  Let me give you an example.  The Lord commands us to make disciples.  True enough.  Then it becomes the focus.  We are to be all about making disciples.  An over-statement for sure, but a harmless one, after all, we are to make disciples, right?  Right!

Then missions becomes our number one priority.  But "missions" is never very well defined.  Properly understood, the statement is true.  But if we lose sight of the full mission of the church, we could be very dangerously wrong.  Then nothing is more important than bringing the lost to Christ.  Liturgy is thrown overboard in favor of something "user-friendly" for the "visitor".  The outside becomes more important than the church-member.  Hymn-books are dispensed with for a format more "accessible".  Musical style becomes a matter of taste, and it is presented as self-understood that old-fashioned German hymnody is ineffective in reaching out to the lost while neo-evangelical, mindless praise songs - devoid of any doctrinal content whatsoever - is more appealing to the modern mind.  Never mind that the traditional hymnody of the church has never been "German", and that study after study shows that the hymns of the faith are more widely appreciated and remembered than the mindless, repetitive ditties that pass as "praise songs."  'Distinctives' such as the Apostles Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and confession and absolution fall by the wayside in service to the single creed of "outreach".  Suddenly we are all ablaze with technique and counting verbal encounters while the actual "making of disciples" is ignored, and those who stubbornly hold to truth and confession of Christ are marginalized as engaging in "incessant purification of doctrine".

Just one little change, if no one stands up and marks it as error, is all that it takes.  Error always snowballs, unless it is held to the corrective of God's Word.  Error must be ceaselessly opposed, and doctrine "incessantly" purified, or before you know it a humble and faithful Christian like Nicholas of Myra can become a secular - read "pagan" - "right jolly old elf" shaped by marketing strategies and soda-pop commercials.  A man who fought for the Christian faith during his lifetime can be transformed into a symbol of the effort to silence the confession of Christ and make something as undeniably parochial as the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Lord of the Christian Church and faith into something that even the enemies of the faith - and of Christ - have a "right" to use and enjoy.

He was born in Bethlehem and He died for all, but he died to redeem them from their sins, not merely to give them one really colorful holiday season for parties and a marketing bonanza.

A blessed celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord to you all!

Pastor Fish

These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due. Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.

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