Christmas and Santa Clause: A Historical Review
By Adib Rashad
November 19, 2000
American and European history informs us that the celebration of Christmas
was once banned in Britain and the North American colonies. This occurred in
the early 17th century. The so-called Puritans in England considered the
entire Christmas celebration as repulsively non-Christian. The Puritan Party
under Oliver Cromwell in 1642 rendered all Christmas celebrations, religious
and secular an anathema, and forbidden by Parliament.
In 1660 at the decline of Puritan rule and the restoration of King Charles
II, Christmas observance began to resurface in Britain.
The General Court of Massachusetts, however, passed a law in 1659 outlawing
Christmas observance. The law was repealed in 1681, but local Christians
continued to manifest antagonism toward Christmas festivities.
Interestingly, the so-called Puritans were just one small segment of
Christians that opposed Christmas. There were other segments that vigorously
The Bible and Christmas
Undoubtedly, the story of Jesus' birth is recorded in Biblical scripture, but
the Bible does not advocate commemorating his birth. No Christian in
biblical history ever observed his birthday. The apostles most certainly did
The Catholic Encyclopedia Dictionary states this about Christmas: In the
earliest days of the church there was no such feast (1941 edition, article
titled Christmas). Additionally, the New Catholic Encyclopedia states: In
explicable though it seems the date of Christ's birth is not known. The
Gospels indicate neither the day nor the month (article is titled Christmas
and its Cycle).
Explaining why the Christian world celebrates Christmas when it does, the New
Catholic Encyclopedia states: The birth of Christ was assigned the date of
the winter solstice (December 25th in the Julian calendar, January 6th in the
Egyptian) because on this day, as the sun began its return to northern skies,
the pagan devotees of Mithra celebrated the birthday of the invincible sun.
The first reference to December 25th being regarded as the birth date of Jesus
was not until A. D. 354. A Roman almanac from that year mentions that date,
but does not offer any evidence of any type of celebration to mark the
Contrarily, in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, Jesus' birth and baptism
were being observed even prior to A. D. 354, but on January 6th. However, by
the middle of the fifth century, most of the Eastern church had adopted
December 25th as the birth of Jesus, but keeping January 6th--Epiphany--to
commemorate his baptism.
On the other hand, the church of Jerusalem did not change its policy
regarding this issue until 549. Furthermore, the Armenian church still
regards January 6th by the Julian calendar (January 19th by the Gregorian) as the
feast of the Nativity.
Clearly the Bible is reticent about informing us to observe Christmas as the
birth date of Jesus; however, it does speak out about the Christmas tree.
Surprisingly, the Bible gives a literal rejection of the Christmas tree:
Jeremiah 10: 2-6: Thus saith the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen...For
the customs of the people are vain; for one cutteth a tree out of the forest,
the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver
and gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
The Bible clearly points out that the display of the Christmas tree is the
way of the heathen--the customs of the people. The Bible admonishes the
people not to learn their customs or to follow them. Also, this particular
verse suggests that the Christmas tree custom is a form of idolatry.
English scholar, Sir James Frazier, in his noteworthy book The Golden Bough,
has this to say about the Christmas tree, or as he calls it, tree-worship:
In the religious history of the Aryan race in Europe the worship of trees
has played an important part of cultural activity. Sacred groves were common
among the ancient Germans and tree-worship is hardly extinct amongst their
descendants at the present day. At Upsala, the old religious capital of
Sweden, there was a sacred grove in which every tree was regarded as divine.
Proofs of the prevalence of tree-worship among Lithuanians. Prussians,
Greeks, Italians and the Druids are abundant.
Frazier also informs us that: On Christmas Eve German peasants used to tie
fruit trees together with straw ropes to make them bear fruit; saying that
the trees were thus married.
Religious scholars such as Charles W. Jones and Herbert Armstrong have
written extensively about the history of Christmas and the etymological
foundation of Santa Clause. According to these scholars and other related
sources, the name Santa Clause is a distortion of the name Saint Nicholas, a
Roman Catholic bishop who lived in the 4th century. Volume 19 of the
Encyclopedia Britannica, pages 648-649, 11th edition, reveals the following:
Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, a saint honored by the Greeks and Latins on
the 6th of December... A legend of his surreptitious bestowal of dowries on
the three daughters of an impoverished citizen...is said to have originated
the old custom of giving presents in secret. This custom was subsequently
transferred to Christmas Day; hence the association with Santa Clause... It
is also stated that Nicholas lived in southern Turkey, and later Asia Minor,
during the first half of the fourth century, but nothing was recorded about
his life until more than two hundred and fifty years after his death. Less
than a hundred years after his death, he was worshipped as a saint for his
legendary good deeds.
Recorded history tells us that Christian tradition assigned Nicholas as the
patron saint of children. He was venerated from Russia to Holland. He
reached New York by way of the early Dutch settlers who built a church in his
name on the Battery. The Santa Claus bifurcation of Nicholas occurred in New
York; in fact, it is common to remark that Saint Nicholas is patron of New
York City, as of New Amsterdam before it. There is a Saint Nicholas
Cathedral on East Ninety-seventh, a grandchild of Nicholas' Russian cult;
from 1924 to 1952 it was in litigation before the U. S. Supreme Court to
determine whether it was purely American or the sect of the patriarchate of
Moscow. There is a Saint Nicholas Avenue and Saint Nicholas Arena, etc.
Historically, there is no doubt that the cult of Santa Claus originated in
New Amsterdam and regained momentum in New York. Clement Clark Moore whose
famous poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas" popularized Saint
Nicholas alias Santa Claus and gave birth to an American legend. Moore had
the knack for making poetry out of inventory. The poem's setting describes
his home. Chelsea (at what is now Eighth Avenue and West 23rd Street in
Manhattan) while his model for Nicholas was the family's jolly bewhiskered
Dutch handyman. Moore was influenced by Washington Irving's History of New
York, which recounts a dream visit from Saint Nick; furthermore, Irving's
work contains two dozen allusions to Santa Claus. Without Irving and the New
York Historical Society (knickerbockers) there would be no American Santa
Moreover, Thomas Nast expressed Santa Claus in art. Nast's Christmas
Drawings for the Human Race was his two page spread depicting a Santa Claus
visitation scene and some fifteen surrounding vignettes of the
by-then-traditional Santa Claus appearances. Thomas Nast was the man who
gave artistic quality to Santa Claus.
Saint Nick, Santa Claus and Racism
In 1844 Dr. Heinrick Hoffman, like Clement Moore before him, wrote children's
verses. Hoffman's Saint Nicholas was so tall he almost touched the sky. He
possessed a giant inkstand which he used not only for instruction but for
rectification: Over his head in the pot of ink great Nicholas forced each
one to sink. Here you can see how black they be, far blacker than the
According to Professor Jones, early corruption of Nicholas' name (Samiklaus,
Sinster Klaes, Klaus, der Niklas, etc.) bespoke friendliness, even
familiarity. However, some religious and business people assigned duality to
Nicholas, and this duality expressed the racism that was prevalent in Europe
and America at that time.
Until recently, Nicholas and Satan visited together in parts of Hungary; in
Swabia Klos and Teufel; in low Germany Quaeclacys is coined from Klaai de
duivel (Nicholas or Nick the Devil).
The second person assumed a personality, usually black to balance Nicholas'
increasing white. At first in Holland the black person was called Nicodemus,
who rode a monkey as Nicholas rode a horse, later, Black Peter traveled from
Moorish Spain with Hapsburg Nicholas and would carry bad children back to
Spain in a burlap sack.
There were many inspirations for the Schwarzer Man (Black Man). Small
children saw him in the chimney sweep, that gave Germans the figure of Hans
Crouf (Black Jack). The Black Man had a mummer's part, as did Melchoir of
the Three Kings (Nicholas' companion was sometimes called Caspar, or Black
Caspar, but never Melchoir). Whether at New Year's Eve or Epiphanytide, the
second person of Nicholas took on a variety of guises, in part drawn from the
racism of folklore and racial expansionism.
On the other hand, some of the early Dutch settlers conjectured that Sandy
Claus (corruption of Saint Nicholas) was represented by a little old Negro,
who descended chimneys at night and distributed a variety of rewards with
The Commercialization of Santa Claus
The commercialization of red and white American Santa Claus was performed by
Coca Cola, a company at the time that was struggling to sell cold drinks in
the cold season. The company needed to figure out how to associate their
product with the holiday season, and so they turned to, an illustrator named
Haddon Sunblum. Sunblum concluded the spirit of the holiday was really Santa
Claus, and Santa Claus had this enormous task facing him every Christmas Eve
and that was to go around the world, in an evening, distributing, toys to
children everywhere and obviously he would, you know, get tired and he would
definitely get thirsty and he would need some refreshment, so what better
idea than to have Santa pausing in his rounds in various scenes enjoying a
nice cold Coca Cola?
Sunblum's Santa Claus really became the American Santa and in real terms the
worldly Santa because his characterization of Santa Claus was the one that
people embraced. He came into their homes; he became a part of their lives
and so, in a very real sense, the imagery created by Sunblum for a commercial
product became a part of popular culture.
Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan Biography of a Legend By Charles
W. Jones (University of Chicago Press, 1978)
The Story of Christmas By Michael Harrison, London, 1951.
Adib Rashad is an education consultant, education
program director, author, and historian. He has lived and taught in
West Africa and South East Asia.