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December 12, 2010: “Father Christmas: Santa, Thor, Coca-Cola, and a Desanctified Saint”

There is a joke about us that says: ‘Ahh, it is December, the time when all Unitarian Universalists become Christians.’ And Garrison Keillor told another one about us: “A sign at the Unitarian church

said: ‘Bible study at 7:00. Bring your Bible and a pair of scissors.”

        December IS a challenge for many of us UUs, but I always advise that it needn't be. That we can embrace the holiday spirit without having to seemingly give up our rational minds, but be willing to be open to what I think is a holy spirit of a time which actually goes back many thousands of years, and that the real reason for the season can be found in our hearts and in the gift of great love and a hope for true peace on earth and good will to all.

        And, oh yes, be willing to participate in what I like to call, ChristMYTH, or what is more accurately called what I suggested as a new name for the season, 'Wintermyth,' because the history of this season goes back to pre-Christian times, best seen in the story of the other famous person of this time, Santa Claus.

        That's right, 'You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why, Santa Clause is coming to town

        He's making a list, Checking it twice, Gonna find out who's naughty or nice. 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! Santa Clause is coming tot town!'

        In fact, it may actually be that Santa Claus is the REAL reason for the season, because he represents the commercial aspect of Xmas and for our US economy the money spent over the Xmas season represents billions of dollars, and that an argument can be made that the current picture we have of Santa Claus actually is from corporate America, most specifically, Coca-Cola! And indeed, I will argue that the origins of this Christ-myth are shrouded in the musts of time, and may date back 50 to 70,000 years! Not only before Christianity, but before modern humanity!  As the great modern explained of myths, Joseph Campbell wrote, 'Myth is what never was, yet always is.'

        The whole season around this time of year is shrouded in myths and legends, as well as gods and goddesses and ancient celebrations from harvest, to winter, to pre-new year celebrations going back thousands of years. Every year, it seems, there are countless articles about the origins of Santa Claus, often contradictory, and few ever delving very deeply. First, our modern Santa comes from four or five people, I will argue, and naturally, one of them, is a Unitarian.

        December 1809, Washington Irving published a popular satire of the Dutch founding of New York titled A Knickerbocker History of New York.  Some believe that it was Irving's Knickerbocker History that could be credited for creating our modern day Santa Claus. The following words from The Knickerbocker History became the public inauguration of Santa Claus. 'And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream, and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to the children. . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.'

        The modern appearance of Santa Claus can be traced to New York City.  John Pintard, a merchant and the founder of the New York historical society was truly a sentimentalist. He promoted Saint Nicholas as New York City's patron saint. He printed a pamphlet in 1810 with the earliest known Santa Claus picture. Interestingly, Pintard's brother-in-law was Washington Irving, who evidently loved Pintard's appearance of Santa Claus and incorporated it into his book. And, of course, there was the influence that Irving's Santa Claus had on Clement Moore.

In 1822, comes from a New York theology professor named Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, a trivial poem titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for his own children as a simple Christmas present. Inspired by Irving’s popular, Knickerbocker History’s portrayal of jolly St. Nicholas, Dr. Moore had no intention of publishing his poem, but in 1823 it was published anonymously, by a friend, in the ‘Troy Sentinel,’ and the rest, as they say, is history. It became a best-seller from then until now, Santa quickly began flying through America and Dr. Moore’s poem was later renamed the famous, “Twas’ The Night Before Christmas.”

UU minister, Christopher Raible, addresses that issue in a book entitled Celebrating Christmas: An Anthology, ed. by Carl Seaburg, where I draw much of my Christmas resources from:

        "A persistent UU legend (I might have helped perpetuate it) is that "The Night Before Xmas" was written by a Unitarian. Yet Clement Clarke Moore, son of an Episcopal cleric, Hebrew scholar who helped found New York's General Theological Seminary, had no apparent Unitarian affiliation.

        Yet the great Unitarian preacher, A. Powell Davies, declared that the author was a Unitarian (and a guiding principle of my life is always to believe what Unitarian Universalist ministers say). Why did Davies call Moore a Unitarian?

        Certainly the original St. Nicholas was no Unitarian. He gave away money, worked miracles, and participated in the Council of Nioea promoting the (there made orthodox) ideas of Christ and God as the same and part of the trinity. He became the patron saint of sailors, pawnbrokers, and Russians (few Unitarians in that lot). With his faithful demonic companion, Black Pete, he rewarded good children and carried off bad children (no Unitarian could decide) on the eve office feast day, December 5. A decade ago, the pope decided St. Nicholas was historically questionable and removed his day from the official calendar.

        An obscure bishop became a significant saint by a thousand year process. Pagan winter wonder workers-gnomes, elves, and saturnalian sprites-were as it were Christened by St. Nicholas acquiring their stories and their duties. (The church excelled at such absorption, hence eggs at Easter, hearts for St. Valentine, and mistletoe at Xmas.)

        Moore, with the stroke of a pen, reversed the process. (True, he was prodded by the works of Washington Irving and others). The Bishop became Santa, exchanging his vestments for sensible fur, acquiring reindeer and sleigh while losing his horse and servant, and returning to the solstice celebration where he belonged. Patron saint became pagan sprite, free of all ecclesiastical encrustation, symbol of cheer and charity, without regard to race, creed, or nationality.

        Maybe Moore was a Unitarian without knowing it." -Chris Raible

        The annual drawings of Santa Claus published every year in Harper's Weekly from 1863 to 1902 became part of the American celebration of Santa. 'The task of depicting this elfin gift-giver who has become so familiar to us fell to the political cartoonist and Unitarian, Thomas Nast. Nast was the cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, and he was also the one who drew the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, as well as Uncle Sam dressed in stars and stripes. President Lincoln once said, "Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant," because his cartoons helped in gaining sympathy for the Union cause. Nast drew many versions of Santa over many years, and his Santa began to look more and more like our modern Santa. But it was not until he was asked to draw some of his Santas in color for a children's book, using a newly developed color printing process, that Santa acquired the familiar red suit. Nast had always thought of his pen and ink Santas as wearing a tan suit before, but this wouldn't do for a book featuring bright colors, so he dressed the jolly elf in a red suit with white ermine trim - and voila! We have our modern Santa Claus! 

It’s a bit ironic that old St. Nicholas, the legendary fourth century defender of the Trinity against Unitarian and other heresies, would be given his definitive, and very secular, American appearance by a nineteenth century Unitarian!’ -Rev. Joy Atkinson

        But starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola, which wanted to promote the drinking of Coke during the winter, since it has usually been seen as a warm weather drink, featured the Santa Claus that most of us have come to know as 'The Real Thing.'  Artist Haddon Sundblom created Santa as a kind, jolly man in a red suit and always holding a bottle of coke. Because magazines were so widely viewed, and because this image of Santa appeared for more than thirty years, the image of Santa most people have today is largely based on corporate advertising of Coca-Cola.

        So while the modern Santa Claus is relatively recent, his origins go way back. Further than St. Nicholas which is where his name comes from probably, the 4th century Bishop that became a saint because of his giving and christ-like love for the poor, the season itself is more ancient in Europe was Saturnalia, celebrated with evergreens and gift-giving, often involved the god of war, Mithra, born in a cave on December 25!

        Around this time were other birthday and frequently virgin births- of Apollo, Dionysus, Woden, and the Phrygian god, Attis. The pre-Christian Romans also celebrated Saturnalia, and gave gifts to loved ones at this time. The Anglo-Saxons and the Teutonic tribes of Germany had winter holidays with things like the Druids sacred symbol of mistletoe and the German symbol of the evergreen, and even the Norse had ancient symbols of gods in sleighs. The figure of Santa Claus, for instance, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Germanic God, Thor, who in ancient mythology was the main God of peasants and common people. He was described as old, jovial, and had a long white beard; the color he is associated with is red, and fire is his symbolic element. He drove a chariot (which was thought to cause the thunder) and was considered to be a helping and protective god for people.  Especially sacred to him were fireplaces, and he was known to come down the chimney into the fire.

        There were the carnival elements in Germany that also live on in the well-known Christmas poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, which begins: "Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house..." There we see the old troupe preserved as reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, and Prancer are the raucous, high-stepping, hair-clad dancers that signaled the start of Carnival; Vixen is the Wild Woman; Cupid is the archer who ended the god's life; Comet the sleigh of one of the Wild Man's versions - the Wild Hunter; Donder and Blitzen (thunder and lightning) are the hallmarks of the Wild Man's dominion over nature.

        Yes, that's right, some have seen Santa as The Wild Man figure and his rituals throughout Europe, from cave paintings, through Babylon, Greece, Rome, Europe, and others. Phyllis Siefker makes a case for this theory in her book, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men. She writes: 'Our Santa is one of the last descendants of a long line of dark, sooty, hair-covered men, the remnant of a pre-Christian god of awesome power. . . The Wild Man was . . . a godhead so strong, so universally worshipped by 'pagans,' that Christianity found him the major impediment to its goal of European salvation. In Europe, Christianity and the old god clashed in anger and violence. To undermine his grip on the people, Christianity labeled his worship evil, and called his followers devilish. . . The fact is that Santa and Satan are alter egos, brothers; they have the same origin. . . The old god traveled two paths into the twentieth century. On one path, he came to personify evil for the growing Christian church. On the other, he became the symbol of holiday, carnival, and new hope.'

        Winter Solstice in the ancient Roman calendar, was December 25, but the 21st is in modern calendar. The ancient holiday was for exchanging gifts, such as 'sigillaria (small Pottery Dolls) in something called Saturnalia, a festival where adults give one another candles; it was believed that Saturn (after whom Saturday is named) led humanity out of gloomy barbarism into the light of civilization; saturn is often represented as father time, his symbol being the scythe for harvesting and metaphor for death. He was also seen as a symbol of the teutonic god Wodin, who had a flying horse, and after whom, Wednesday is named!  The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born, groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born.

        Santa's history is truly ancient, perhaps 70,000 years old. Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men traces this creature from the prehistoric High Alps through the Middle Ages and into the 20th Century. The book takes us to 19th and 20th century bear festivals that continue even today.  The author takes us to the past of Santa from worshiped bear to bearer of gifts.

        Anthropologist Joseph Campbell and investigating anthropologists made the connection between ancient finds and the arctic rituals and dated them to about 70,000 BC, but if you know your anthropology, you know that modern humans weren't around then. It was Neanderthals who performed these ancient rituals. Later archaeological excavations reveal Neanderthals sacrificed in the same manner as the bears. Was the original Wild Man a Neanderthal, perhaps performing a bear ritual?

        The history of the death and resurrection of the beast-god that sired Santa is older than Greece, even older than modern humans. It was a ceremony of death and resurrection, of life and fertility, carried on by an ancient aboriginal people - called elves or fairies by later settlers - and adopted by these settlers, who replaced them and continued the sacred rituals throughout Europe.

        One scholar in Japan was shocked to discover a Japanese slant on Xmas when he saw a Santa Claus crucified on a cross in a store window full of Xmas decorations!

        She concludes her book by saying: 'And, of course, there's Santa Claus. As the ancient beast-god of old, he continues to bring bounty and promise to us each year, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.  Gods, religions, nations and even hominid species have risen and fallen while he somehow persists. No wonder he winks as he sips his Coca-Cola.'

        Santa Claus, Father Xmas, continues in this age of science and technology, the TV news even participates in the myth by tracking Santa's sleigh on Xmas eve! Oh, if we wanted to be cynical, we could just say it's all about the money and corporate profits, but I want to believe in Santa Claus; indeed, my childhood Xmases were blest by his spirit when my parents took on his role to make a time of the year magic, happy, loving, full of light and hope, giving from their hearts to their children, just as my wife and I would do a generation later for our own children. We would BECOME Santa, just as surely as if we had we had donned a Santa suit- male and female the Santa is. It was as if somehow we put on the mantle of love and a profound spirit of giving from the deepest part of the heart! I tear up as I write this, thinking of the Xmas mornings I have experienced from childhood until today, and think of the great love that is demonstrated in a time of magic and myth.

        I will admit that I am often more Scrooge than Santa during this season; is my New England thriftiness? Selfishness? I have to struggle to live up to the spirit of Xmas, here personified by love and giving.  In many ways, of course, Santa is outside of any one religion as seen by the history of thousands of years of tradition, yet may be more the symbol of universal religion of believing in God with two 'o''s, the GOOD!  And a love that opens the heart to a generosity of spirit for family, lovers, friends, even tradespeople we deal with!

        We must beware, I believe, of the great sin of CYNICISM. around this time of year, and instead see all those signs that say 'Believe' as a reminder of our better selves, that we all have the potential of saints.

         I think the message of these holidays IS universal and yes, humanist, that it is us, we humans, that must make the difference, must save, not our original sinning souls which I do not believe we have, but the world ourselves.

        During the winter solstice, you see, the world is reborn; spring comes and flowers resurrect, but we must survive the icy winter first; we must thaw our hearts which sometime ice up as well in the busi-ness even of Xmas. The  true God of this time of year is love, the Bible says; so is the true Santa.

        May we find Santa in our souls, love in our hearts, and other hands holding ours; may we truly give of ourselves and live life deeply and lovingly.

Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Xmas! May there be peace on earth and Good Will to all!

Opening Words

‘Blessed are the parents,’ writes Betty Baker,
‘Who know how big is Christmas
And how small,
Who lead the way to the fireside
Rather than to the toy counter;
Their children will follow them.

Blessed are the parents
Who stop in the midst of party-going
And gift buying and card Addressing
To hear the simple song of love;
Their children will also hear the music.’

Guest Column: Santa Claus
By Karen Kiefer/ Guest Columnist
Thursday, December 9, 2004

With all my hopes and all my dreams, I needed to believe. When others said it wasn’t true, I found reasons to believe in Santa Claus. It wasn’t easy debating forensics prodigy, Bobby Patterson during second-grade recess, or the neighborhood snoop, Ellie Brochelletti, whose predictions could have made her millions in Vegas.

  They both told me flat out, "Santa Baby was for babies!"
  It was so easy for them not to believe. All I could think was that they'd never received a nine battery operated anything for Christmas.
  With all my hopes and all my dreams, I needed to believe.
  I spent sleepless nights meticulously organizing my "Reasons to Believe" list:

  Reason No. 1: My parents could never afford the wealth dropped under our tree.
  Reason No. 2: Between all the starts and stops of carting five kids through life, they would never have enough time to shop for and wrap all the presents.
  Reason No. 3: When my parents turned off the last light on Christmas Eve, and the last eyelid was shut, they could never find the strength or energy in the wee hours to get back up and deliver Christmas.
  Reason No. 4: Only Santa would be allowed to make such a sooty mess in front of the fireplace.
  Reason No. 5: Only Santa could figure out the present buried so deep in my heart, always.
  Reason No. 6: The world couldn't be caught up in this big Santa conspiracy.
  Reason No. 7: I needed to believe.

  It wasn't easy going to the mall and realizing the man behind the Santa beard was really our postman. Or listening to the oldest Sullivan kid tell everyone from here to the North Pole that he helped his parents put out the presents for his younger brothers and sisters on Christmas Eve.

  At times it felt as if the chorus of disbelievers was drowning out all the fa la la la las, but I still found reasons to believe.

  I tried desperately to catch a glimpse of old St. Nick, but my eyes never stayed awake long enough. I also tried to rig a contraption from the roof to my bedroom window, alerting me to His arrival, but my ears never awakened me to the jingle of sleigh bells above.

  My heart was the truest proof that Santa had paid me a visit.  Its tingle made me feel like His magic lived within.

  As the years passed, many of my "Reasons" began to fall off my list, all but one:

  Lucky No. 7 stuck. I needed to believe ... and still do.

  Yes, there really is a Santa Claus! He delivers love, wonderment and the priceless gift of hope - free - with no strings, ribbons or clauses attached.

   Karen Kiefer lives in Wayland with her husband and four daughters. Sorted by relevance