As the holidays roll around, images of evergreen trees, colored lights, and of course, Santa Claus run through the minds of Americans across the nation. After all, who could forget the infamous gay, black Santa who starred as the protagonist of a children’s book this year? 

Individuals from various stripes of religious traditions are notorious for coming together during winter seasons such as this one to discuss the nature of Santa Claus. As a jolly fat man from the imagination of the entire world embodies much of the holiday season, it is no surprise that many would seek to subvert the image of Saint Nicholas to suit their own social agenda. To alleviate any deviance from historical accuracy, let us examine the character of Santa Claus. 

When many Christian hear the name, “Santa Claus,” those trained in church history would be quick to think of St. Nicholas of Myra, a Greek bishop from the 4th century who famously punched the heretic Arius in the face. And rightly so. The Greek bishop was notable for his sizeable donations to the impoverished, and famously presented three poor daughters of a Christian man with dowries so that they would not be forced to resort to prostitution. 

St. Nicholas is an influential figure on the character of Santa Claus, and during the Middle Ages, children were often given gifts in remembrance of the philanthropic bishop. After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, a newly found resistance to the invocation of the saints swept across Western Europe, and the figure of St. Nicholas was soon appropriated to the fictional Santa Claus, whose likeness was honored on December 24th and 25th via gift-giving.

However, before the above account of the development of Christmas, the pre-Christianized Germanic pagans celebrated a winter holiday called Yule as early as the 4th century (approximately near the time of St. Nicholas’s ministry, interestingly enough). The national celebration was initially focused on recognizing the Winter Solstice, which was honored by large amounts of merriment and feasting. 

In ancient Rome, the holiday Saturnalia was celebrated long before the birth of Jesus Christ, and one of its central attributes was a strong emphasis on gift-giving. Historical records show that Roman children received toys, and adult received gifts varying in expense, from objects ranging from the mundane to the luxurious. Certainly, it doesn’t take a scholar to recognize that Christmas as a European tradition has roots far deeper than the generous spirit of St. Nicholas. Rather, the holiday itself seems to be almost a genetic recognition of something magical – the closing of another year, symbolized by the powdery white snowflakes layering the ground like a pale sheet. 

Santa Claus is not an appropriated distortion of St. Nicholas of Myra, nor is the Christmas tradition something to be disrespected and altered for the purpose of multiculturalism or inclusion. So, as you sit around your fireplace, sipping on egg nog, ponder on the historical significance of Christmas this year, and consider celebrating both the pagan aspect, in addition to the Christian one. 

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