Children in the first half of the 20th century and before received little more than small toys and candy from St. Nicholas (Sinter Klass in Dutch or Sankt Nicklaus in German) in their Christmas stockings. Nowadays, those stockings are little more than mantel decorations in most homes. The kids ignore them; they know the “good stuff” is too big for a stocking to hold.
Think back to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge spies on Tiny Tim’s family through the window, there were no piles of toys scattered around the floor, no figurines of Santa Claus in his red suit hanging about the room. That was Christmas in the 19th century, a day for a special family meal and some caroling, but no carloads of gifts from the local Toys “R” Us ascribed to Santa Claus and his jolly elves.
How did St. Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop from what is now Turkey, become the robust character in the red suit in all the department stores? Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “The Night Before Christmas” started it all. Moore portrayed “St. Nick” as a “chubby and plump” and “right jolly old elf.” The political cartoonist Thomas Nast took it from there, popularizing Moore’s image through a series of mid-19th-century drawings in Harper’s Weekly depicting the gift-giving St. Nicholas as a rotund figure with a flowing beard and clay pipe. But he was still St. Nicholas and still elfin.
The hefty and hearty Santa of today did not arrive on the scene until the mid-1930s, when Coca-Cola initiated an advertising campaign featuring a life-sized Santa in the familiar fur-lined red suit with the big black boots. He appeared in magazine ads, on billboards and posters all over the country throughout the 1940s and 1950s, becoming the quintessential American symbol of Christmas. That’s when it all started; not that long ago.
I can see why many deplore this devolution. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, not a commercial image contrived to sell a soft drink, popularized by merchants who begin their Christmas advertising campaigns the instant their Halloween displays come down from their storefronts. My late brother-in-law fit this mold. He limited his Christmas gifts to things like pot-holders and scarves and small wooden dolls sold by Appalachian poverty projects. He wanted to keep the day “spiritual” and free of the commercial hoopla.
I always felt a little guilty just a little when he would visit my home at Christmas and encounter the piles of toys that my kids received from my wife and me and my mother and five brothers and sisters. (There was about a ten-year period when my children were the only grandkids in the family. They profited immensely from the monopoly status.) So I get it: the gift-giving phenomenon surrounding Santa Claus can distort the true meaning of Christmas. I would venture that there are many American children who make no connection whatsoever between Santa and the birth of Jesus. That’s a sad reality.
Nonetheless, on balance, I contend that the American Santa Claus phenomenon is a healthy one. How can I say that when I have just conceded that Santa is a creation of advertisers and merchants? Here’s how: I know that the Coca-Cola ads and the Budweiser ads with families clustered around the hearth with their hearty brews were conceived to sell me something. But the ads make me feel good, drawn to something wholesome and virtuous and innocent, in a way ads linked to other holiday themes do not, the ads around the Fourth of July or Halloween, for example.
There is nothing smarmy, rowdy or vulgar associated with Christmas ads. The advertisers appeal to our better side at Christmas. They are tub-thumping to sell a product, but, consciously or not, they do so by appealing to something in our souls that comes alive in a unique manner during the Christmas season, something lofty and pure, generous and family-centered, something Christian.
The 19th-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach is famous for his contention that God is nothing more than our outward projection onto an imaginary creature of our noblest ideals and aspirations. Feuerbach was wrong. We have Jesus’ word for that, if reason fails us in this regard. But, you know, Feuerbach may have been right about Santa Claus and the American Christmas experience. The advertisers may have stumbled by accident upon the phenomenon of our better side rising to the surface each year at Christmas, the celebration of the birth of the Savior.
C.S. Lewis wrote an essay probing the curious warmth and sense of well-being that children experience when looking at softly-lit toy villages and winter scenes, the sort of thing one might find in storefronts during the Christmas season. His contention was that the yearning for something decent and pure elicited by these scenic depictions is a clue that we were meant for something more than the world as we know it, the fallen world with its evils, disappointments and tribulations; that this longing for the good and high-minded is a craving for the world as it was intended by the Creator, before the scars of Original Sin.
The imagery associated with the American celebration of Christmas, even the secularized version of St. Nicholas we call Santa Claus, does all that, and then some. This time of the year I always think back to comments I heard one Christmas from a very pleasant and good-hearted Jewish girl who was a student of mine in the public school where I taught in the suburbs of New York City. The girl wasn’t speaking to me, but to several of her friends.
“I know I’m not supposed to,” she said, “but I love Christmas.” C.S. Lewis would have known what she meant.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)