I grasped the sponge, water dripped down my wrist as I took aim. The man from the McGillicuddy Serious Party raised his voice and said “now throw!” The sponge flew through the air from my hand and struck Santa solidly on the chest soaking his red costume. Santa laughed and said “throw another one!”
It was my second year at university and the McGillicuddies were running their annual “throw a sponge at Santa” event. This was done ostensibly to protest materialistic consumerism of which they saw Santa as a modern icon. I was simply sick of the whole hypocritical façade that was Christmas. An event that for many, myself included, has deeply religious significance was being trivialised by a fat man in a red suit from the north-pole. It really irked me.
Years have passed since this event and with age comes (I hope) more reserve and wisdom. I have learned more about the cultural icon known as Santa and I have come to appreciate, at least from an historical perspective, why this icon exists. I agree that today the historical meaning of this icon has been forgotten. However I think that the solution to this forgetfulness is to re-awaken our cultural memory by addressing the theological and historical ignorance prevalent in our culture; attempts to cut ourselves off from the past even further are not the right approach.
The reference to Santa as an icon is apt because the original Santa, Nicholas of Myra, became an icon in religious art. In earlier times there was no printing press and illiteracy was widespread so vivid art became an important way of communicating a message. Characters had to be readily recognisable, in religious art Nicholas was represented by the figure of a man with a large white beard. Given that he was a Catholic bishop, he was portrayed in red robes. The figure of a white-bearded man in red robes became a symbol for an historical person, and the story of Nicholas was kept alive because of its immediate relevance for the present.
Nicholas of Myra was probably born between 260 and 280 AD in Petara (Turkey). He was raised a devout Christian and became Bishop of the nearby province of Myra. He lived through turbulent times. In the early 300’s the emperor Diocletian launched one of the most severe persecutions of Christians in history, many were killed, imprisoned and exiled. A few decades later the Roman Emperor Constantine announced he had converted to Christianity and the Roman Empire became officially Christian.
Nicholas lived through both events and while the facts are disputed, some records claim he attended the council of Nicaea which saw the hammering out of key Christian doctrines such as the trinity and incarnation. The creed of Nicaea is accepted by all major branches of Christianity today – whether orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. Nicholas was, like all human beings, flawed and at one stage is believed to have assaulted another bishop in a heated theological dispute. His flaws aside, his religious commitment clearly made an impression on his contemporaries. Nicholas was quite wealthy yet he gave his wealth away to assist impoverished children. He became known as a leader who generously gave to the poor and who sought and stood up for the welfare of children. He is believed to have intervened to save innocent people from execution. His acts served as role model for others and so his example was appropriated to future generations.
Much of the historical facts about Nicholas’ life have merged with legend which seems to have developed hundreds of years after the events in question. The Middle Ages saw the development of a particular literary genre know as hagiography. Hagiographies were biographies of the saints, people from the past whose character and devotion had been considered exemplary. Hagiographies retold the past in an idealised, exaggerated manner to inspire moral lessons on the part of the hearer, often mixing history with edifying legend to make the story memorable. These stories were usually highly stereotyped and often employed the same literary motifs and plots from one account to another. The point of such stories was not to get the historical facts correct in all their details but to ensure that the moral example of past saints was made vividly available to future generations. Nicholas’ life was no exception to this, much of what we know of him today comes from embellished hagiography.
Despite this there is one striking story about Nicholas which appears to be rooted in historical reality, even if the re-telling is somewhat stylised. It comes in at least three versions but all three agree in the essence and differ only on minor details. The story goes like this. A wealthy man in Myra fell into economic hard times and was unable to provide a dowry for his three daughters. In the culture of the time this meant that his daughters would have been unable to marry and would probably have been forced, by economic necessity, into either slavery or prostitution to provide for themselves. Nicholas, upon hearing of the family’s plight, secretly visited them in the night and tossed gold through the window of their house.
The details differ between accounts, in some accounts what was tossed were gold balls, as opposed to gold coins. In one version the gold is said to have landed in stockings left before the fire to dry. On some versions Nicholas came on three consecutive nights but in others the process was more staggered, with him coming only when the first girl was of marriageable age, then again when the second reached marriageable age with the process being repeated with the third daughter.
On the third occasion, the man, desirous of knowing who was sending the gifts waited up to discover who the mysterious stranger was. On one version of the story the father discovered that the giver is Nicholas who then refused to take credit, instead he suggested he was simply doing his duty before God. But in another version, Nicholas evaded detection by secretly dropping a sack of gold down the chimney. The point preserved in the tradition is that through his generosity and social concern, Nicholas saved three women from a dire path.
These stories were retold frequently throughout the Middle Ages to function as exemplars of virtuous living. Nicholas was held out as an example of generosity to the poor so as to inspire other people of means to do the same. Like many early church leaders, Nicholas was venerated in subsequent ages and was later canonised as a saint. Feasts were established in memory of him, where this story of his generosity to the poor was ceremonially remembered and re-enacted to reinforce the moral point of the story.
It is not hard for the astute reader to see the obvious origins of the Santa phenomena played out each Christmas. Here we have a man whose name, St Nicholas, has obvious linguistic affinity with Santa Claus. Nicholas was historically identified as a white-bearded man, who wore red robes, who secretly comes bearing gifts either via a chimney or by leaving them in stockings near the fireplace, left out while the house sleeps. We also have a tradition of feasting where this tale is remembered and ceremonially re-enacted. What is important to remember is that the function of such theatrics was to vividly reinforce in the hearer the important moral lesson of giving generously to those in need. This was the whole point of retelling and remembering the story.
Over time, traditions become repetitive and are simply repeated by rote. Unless they are cherished and re-appropriated by each generation, their significance can be lost. The fact that many contemporary New Zealanders have limited knowledge of history and that western culture, unlike other cultures, does not emphasis appropriating the lessons from the past, means that Santa has been transformed from an icon representing generosity into the cartoonish figure that, to so many of us, represents commercialism, consumerism and gluttony.
During an economic recession, many families stressfully ask how they are going to afford the gifts they are socially obliged to buy and the expensive feasts, traditional foods and decorations that goes with Santa. Many children learn the prudential value both of greed and being spoilt for one day a year. This is perhaps one of the biggest ironies of Christmas, as while we all feast and receive things we probably don’t need, women will roam the streets selling themselves as prostitutes, often out of economic necessity, and the poor around the world continue to be sold into slavery and enticed into sweat shops.
The solution to this irony is not to castigate Santa Claus (as I did many years ago with a wet sponge) but to recapture the lesson our forefathers carefully tried to reinforce through artwork, ceremony, ritual and legend. That those of us with wealth have an obligation to give and assist those facing destitution and hardship that is what God’s will for us is and doing this humbly represents the spirit of Christ. One way to do this is start reclaiming back into our culture the real story of Santa; the wealthy Bishop who, without pomp or ceremony, helped others out of poverty and was immortalised in legend as a result. That, instead of reindeers and bells, is worth preserving.
I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the Jan 11 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
Letters to the editor should be sent to:
Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast
Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament
Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro
Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus