How each of us practice our Christian faith is a personal choice. Christianity itself is a personal faith, a relationship between you and God. As each of us are unique individuals, with our own personalities, strengths and weaknesses, desires and motivations, and situations in life, so too will our worship and service to God be uniquely ours. Perhaps that is nowhere more evident than with the question of the customs and practices we observe to celebrate our faith, such as Christmas, and Easter, and even whether we choose to celebrate them at all. How we each live out our faith and whether or not we observe the historical events in the life of Jesus, those things which are most near and dear to our hearts, is a personal choice. There are no commandments. However, there is so much disinformation about the history of our Christian holidays, both the dates on which we celebrate the various events in the life of Jesus as well as the manners and customs with which we celebrate them, that the subject deserves more careful investigation.
Saint Nicholas of Myra
Perhaps one of the most common objections to the celebration of Christmas, aside from the date of its observance, is the tradition of a Christmas Eve visit from Santa Claus. Contrary to the anti-Santa theories popping up across the internet, Santa Claus is no mythical person derived from pagan fables. Nor is he the jolly old elf adorned in a red suit circling the globe on Christmas eve in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer, portrayed by popular culture. Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, was an historical person from the early years of Christian history. He was born March 15, 270 A.D. in the town of Myra in Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey, and died December 6, 343 A.D. During his life he was witness to some of the most important events in early Christian history.
Nicholas’ wealthy parents died when he was young, leaving him a fortune. He spent his life and his wealth in service to the Gospel of Christ, building a church and ministering to the needs of his community, particularly the poor, and building and operating an orphanage to care for children in a world where an orphaned child often died on the streets, alone and forgotten.
Saint Nicholas the Confessor
During the Diocletian persecution from 303 to 313, the last and most brutal of the persecutions of Christians by Rome, Nicholas was arrested and became a “Confessor,” someone who had suffered and survived torture for refusing to renounce Christ. When Constantine ascended the throne after the death of Diocletian, Nicholas was released from prison. Short history on the Diocletian Persecution
Saint Nicholas the Defender of the Faith
As is so often our wont, once the churches were free from the specter of persecution, they began to debate doctrine and there arose two controversies, one of which was tearing the churches apart. The first, and the least controversial, was when to observe Easter, “the feast of the Resurrection,” whether it should be on the 3rd day after the Paschal Moon, whatever day of the week that might fall upon, (called the Quartodecimin view which a few of the churches in Asian Minor were practicing), or to observe the resurrection on “Paschal Sunday,” the Sunday following the Paschal Moon, as the rest of the churches throughout the world were practicing. The decision of the council was that the “Feast of the Resurrection” (later called “Easter”) was to be observed on the Sunday following the Paschal Moon, the day when historically the Lord Jesus rose from the dead, the “8th day” and the beginning of the new creation. But the second controversy, and the one which had spilled from pulpit to pew and was causing such strife in the churches, was the question of the nature of Jesus, the majority of the churches arguing for the triune nature of equality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while a small group of dissenters argued contrary. In 325 A.D., a council was convened in the town of Nicea, attended by Christian bishops, leaders, and elders, from every congregation throughout the world. Saint Nicholas joined St. Athanasius (the Bishop of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, Egypt) and others in successfully arguing for the deity of Jesus and Nicholas was one of the many bishops who signed the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s most universally acknowledged statement of faith. Many of the church leaders who attended the Council of Nicea, including Saint Nicholas, had survived the Diocletian persecution and bore in their bodies the proof of their unyielding faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
And yet, across the internet, this council, and this generation of Christians, are being accused of adopting pagan holidays and customs and giving them a Christian veneer in order to make Christianity more palatable to the masses and win converts, a theory that is historically false. Some content providers and social media posters even go so far as to accuse this generation of Christians, and even this council, of “idolatry” and arrogantly declare, without any historical evidence or support, that “Christmas is a pagan holiday”! The voices echoing such tales are legion. But when you delve into their objections you find they are based on nothing more than speculation and assumption with no actual historical evidence, and even absurd connections between words that simply sound similar with no actual study of the history of words and where they are derived from. And all of this supposed “adoption of paganism” and the conclusions they draw inevitably reveals their controversy is not actually with the Christian observance of the historical events in the life of Jesus … but with Christianity itself.
The historical record tells a very different story
than the myths and fables
haunting the internet.
The historical record of the 4th century shows the opposite of this popular disinformation campaign that is creating so much noise around the internet. Letters that were written by no less an authority than the Emperor of Rome, Julian called “the Apostate” (A.D. 331 – 363), leave us in no doubt as to the true state of affairs between Christians and pagans in 4th century Rome. When Emperor Julian came to power, he vehemently opposed Christianity and attempted to reinstitute the worship of the old Roman gods. He spent a fortune rebuilding the pagan temples that had fallen into disrepair and reinstituting the sacrifice and worship of the Roman gods that was being neglected because the Roman masses had abandoned the old pagan worship and converted to Christ. Emperor Julian wrote letters to his High Priest Arsacius. Inone such letter he stated that the reason so many Romans had converted to Christianity was because of the sober and honest lives of the Christians and their benevolence towards others. They were renown for caring for the graves of the departed because of their belief in the resurrection, they did not engage in disreputable trades, were honest in business dealings, did not frequent taverns or houses of ill repute, treated all as equals not showing favoritism to priests or to magistrates, they set up hostels to care for travelers and the homeless, and instituted empire-wide welfare programs for the poor, providing even for the poor among the pagans.
These were the reasons laid out by Emperor Julian in a letter that explained why Christianity had spread so rapidly throughout the Roman Empire and why so many had been won over to Christ. So, in order to try to win back the Romans to the pagan religion of their fathers, Julian instructed his high priest to order all the pagan priests to begin to emulate the lives and benevolence of the Christians, and even to lie and claim that these virtues had always been their practice. And if any of their priests refused to do so, they were to be stripped of their clerical robes and positions.
These letters, written by no less than the 4th century Emperor of Rome himself, provide irrefutable evidence that is the very opposite of the popular theory burning up the internet today. History does not show that Christians were adopting paganism to win converts to Christ. Rather, the actual record of history shows that a pagan Emperor adopted Christian practices to convert Romans back to paganism. But the Emperor’s efforts proved fruitless. The Roman masses refused to abandon their Christian faith or to return to their old pagan worship. Emperor Julian died at 31 years of age, after only 20 months on the imperial throne, and the old Roman gods and goddesses and their temples and worship were cast aside and forgotten, relegated to the dustbin of history.
Saint Nicholas the Legend
After his death on December 6, 343 at the age of 73, Nicholas was venerated as the patron saint of children and his deeds became legendary. It is recounted that on the eve of the feast of the nativity, as Christmas was originally called, Nicholas went throughout his parish delivering gifts to the needy, simple toys and fruits and sweets to the children, and many other such acts of benevolence for which Saint Nicholas' Christian love and service have been remembered and celebrated to this day.
Up until the 19th century, Nicholas was always depicted as a tall, gaunt figure dressed in clerical robes walking through snow-covered paths carrying a bag of gifts strapped to his back, most likely a much more accurate portrayal of this legendary saint.
Contrary to the hearsay that “Santa Claus” and the flying sleigh and reindeer and all other customs associated with Christmas were adopted from pagans, it wasn't actually until an 1821 publication of a poem, “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” in New York City that the idea of a flying sleigh and reindeer was first added to the legend of Saint Nicholas.
Two years later, in 1823, a new poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or more popularly, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which quickly became popular in American culture, morphed this newly minted Saint Nicholas into a jolly and rotund elfish character who could magically enter homes by coming down the chimney.
But it was in 1930, when the Coca-Cola Company began a series of Christmas advertising using the image of a fat, jolly old man, that Saint Nicholas was adorned in the now-iconic red suit, which has today become the popular image of Santa Claus worldwide.
Christmas and its many customs and traditions were not adoptions of pagan celebrations, but rather originated as observances of the birth of Jesus, and through the generations Christians found various ways to express the most important elements of the Gospel, in songs and in services, in the church and at home.
The choice of whether to include a "visit from Saint Nicholas" in one's Christmas celebrations for little children is a personal choice. There are no commandments. But there is a wonderful Christian message inherent in the tradition, one that will be a lasting testimony once a child has outgrown childish things: That God so loved the world, that He sent His own Son, into a world that slept wrapped in the darkness of the long winter night, bringing gifts for the children of men, that with the coming of the light they might wake to a new day, in which they will find great joy and peace in the blessed gifts bestowed by the sacrifices made by their loving father. This message is the essense of the Gospel ~