In the first two articles in this series, we’ve been focusing on the dynamic behind those who claim a “War on Christmas” exists. Now, in this article that I call, “The Coca Cola Saint,” we can turn our attention toward sorting through the layers of tradition surrounding Christmas to see if we can lay bare more of its true meaning.
In the US, Christmas evokes images of Christmas trees and Santa Claus and flying reindeer (especially Rudolph) and stockings stuffed with gifts and lights and stars and angels and special seasonal songs. Sometimes, there’s Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. But, most of all, it’s about wonder in the eyes of innocent children. Other countries include other diverse mythologies (like St. Lucy, Father Christmas, Father Frost, etc.).
Where did all this come from? As I pointed out in my first article, much of the Christmas mythology comes from the detachment of liturgical celebrations from the liturgical calendar and their subsequent secularization. For example, St. Lucy’s celebration falls on December 13. St. Nicholas’ day is December 6 in the west and December 19 in the east. The story of St. Nicholas is a perfect example of what happens when a Christian celebration is de-liturgicized.
Nicholas of Myra (270-343 CE) was a bishop in Myra in present-day Turkey. At that time, the parents of young girls had to provide a substantial dowry in order for their daughters to marry. Without a dowry, the girls were most often sold into prostitution. The legend of Nicholas said that, whenever a young girl in his diocese was approaching marriageable age, Nicholas would take some gold coins from the church treasury and, under cover of night, leave them as a gift to destitute parents. Thus, Nicholas gained recognition as the patron saint of children. Similarly, his saving gift-giving was related back to God’s “gift” of his his Son (Jesus) for the salvation of the world, as well as the gifts of the Magi that recognized Jesus’ birth.1 Thus, with the one story of Nicholas, we find connections both to gift-giving and to children.
The next stage in the evolution of Nicholas was orchestrated by poet Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863). He composed a long poem in the spirit of Nicholas entitled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” We may know the poem as, “‘Twas the Night before Christmas.” Moore transformed the saint into a “jolly old elf” with a big white beard who rode through the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and who delivered gifts to children by sliding down (and back up) the chimney. The gift of coal to bad children comes from other myths such as Krampus (who drowns bad children) or Le Père Fouettard (who floggs them) or Knecht Ruprecht (who is a manifestation of the devil), all of whom also deliver lumps of coal.
The final transmogrification of Saint Nicholas into our Christmas hero happened when artist Haddon Sundblum created an advertising layout for the Coca Cola Company in the early 1930’s. Sundblum turned the saint in the Moore poem into the Santa Claus (Sinta Klaus) of our contemporary celebrations (and encouraged children to leave refreshments out — particularly Coca Cola — in case Santa was hungry or thirsty on his way around the world).
Christmas trees were the result of a pagan custom of bringing live trees into the house in mid-winter as a kind of sympathetic magic to encourage the coming of spring. The decorations (especially the star of Bethlehem) that graced the trees after populations embraced Christianity bore testimony to how Christian missionaries encouraged local populations to find Christian meaning in their deeply held holidays and rituals.
The mythology around which we surround our Christmas celebrations has roots in ancient Christian traditions but have become so divorced from them as to be, for all intents and purposes, unrecognizable. If these are the “targets” of the so-called “War on Christmas,” then we should have no quarrel with it. They’re superficial and commercialized myths that serve to augment the magic of the season (the winter solstice) but they have nothing intrinsically to do with Christmas. They were invented; they evolved; they will continue to evolve as people keep adding to it (like Robert May’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Raindeer, 1939 for Montgomery Ward & Co., put to music by Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law).
Once we have stripped away the accretions, what do we have left regarding the “true meaning of Christmas”? It may be surprising to find that the “true meaning” has changed over the years, again, under the influence of artistic and social accretions. But, that will be the subject of my next article, “True Meaning of Christmas.”