This topic is adapted from the Epipheo YouTube channel.
- Modern Santa Claus is a combination of European and Christian traditions. Prior to the rise of Christianity in continental Europe, the Germanic peoples worshiped a pantheon of gods, including Odin.
- A common practice in the conversion of Europe during the early centuries of the church is called “Christian reformulation” or “Christian translatability.” Missionaries and church leaders would allow converted tribespeople to keep their language, clothing, and some holdovers from their old traditions. Missionaries would insist that any holdover traditions be used to glorify God, so if the converted people had a winter or fall harvest festival, for example, a celebration would still be held at the same time of year, but it would thereafter be a festival of a martyred saint or a time of worship to Jesus. But some of the traditions connected to the old festivals carried forward into the new ones. Some scholars hold that some of the traditions related to modern Santa Claus can actually be rooted back to pre-Christian celebrations of the Nordic season “Yule” where Odin would ride his eight-legged horse across the sky and give gifts to children. When Saint Nicholas (270-343 A.D.), who inherited wealth and was generous toward children and the poor, died December 6, around the time of the old Yule festival, Odin was discarded and Yule transformed into a time of remembering Nicholas’s generosity and kindness to children as the festival of Christmastide approached.
- Because Nicholas’s feast day (Dec 6) was so close to Christmastide (Dec 25-Jan 5) he became associated with the coming of Christmas and was viewed as a figure who “ushered in” Christmas. Different European cultures call him “Lord Christmas,” “Sir Christmas,” “Father Christmas,” or “Sinterklaas” (a combination and shortening of ‘Sint’ and “Nicolaas’) from which we get the English “Santa Claus.” “Santa” means “saint” and “Claus” is a shortened form of the name “Nicholas.” Sinterklaas is often depicted dressed in the red vestments of a Christian bishop while riding a large, white horse like Odin.
- The Sinterklaas tradition came to the U.S. with European immigrants. In the U.S., the tradition was anglicized (Sinterklaas became “Santa Claus”) and new traditions developed including Santa’s hat, sleigh and reindeer, living at the North Pole, etc.
Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.
- Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
- What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
- Did you believe in Santa Claus when you were young? If so, when did you find out the truth about him?
- What will you (or did you) teach your kids about Santa Claus, and why?
- What do you think about “Christian reformulation” or “translatability?” Should pagan peoples have been allowed to keep their language and other customs? Explain why or why not.
- What beliefs or practices did you “discard” or “adopt” when you became a Christian? Explain.
- God asks us to “discard” some things from our lives while he “redeems” other things and hands them back to us so we can glorify Him and serve others with them. Do you agree or disagree? Explain.
- Many Protestant missionaries of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries insisted that new believers in Africa become “civilized” before they could become Christians. This included speaking the missionary’s language, dressing American/European, etc. Were they right or wrong to do this? Explain.
- Since we know some Christmas time traditions (Santa, trees) are “baptized” traditions from pre-Christian Europe, does that mean we are sinning by including these things in our Christmas celebrations? Explain.
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.