Growing up, I remember Christmas being such a magical time of year. As soon as Thanksgiving was over, the Christmas decorations came out, the tree went up, and Christmas lists were made out to Santa.
For thousands of families across America, especially for children, Christmas is all about the things that come in pretty boxes, wrapped in paper and bows. Even going to Christmas Vigil or Mass is drowned out by the excitement of gift giving and visiting family. And, while many Christian families display a Nativity scene, it’s often lost in the sea of Santa trinkets, elves, and presents.
Christmas wasn’t always this way – at least for Catholics. It used to be a day to celebrate not gift giving or charity, and not even family gatherings. Rather, it was a day to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child – our King.
A Protestant Tradition
Before the invention of Santa Claus – a protestantized and commercialized version of Saint Nicholas – we did not share the celebration of Christ’s birth with secular traditions. Christmas was a Holy Day, not a holiday.
In fact, gift-giving was a popular tradition consigned to the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas on December 6. Throughout Europe, children received gifts on his feast day, based on the traditions and legends of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. It wasn’t until Martin Luther transferred the tradition to Christmas Day that Christmas became the primary gift-giving day. Luther began the tradition to turn away from the Catholic veneration of saints and the idea of setting aside Holy Days. The idea caught on throughout Germany.
The secularized notion of Christmas can really trace its roots to a few traditions including Christkind – as established by Luther – and Saint Nicholas, among others. The commercialized version of Christmas evolved in America throughout the mid to late 1800s, with various caricatures of Saint Nicholas. Eventually, he was given the name Santa Claus – a version of the Dutch nickname for Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaas.
And the rest, they say, is history.
Spotlight on Santa
In most families in America, Santa is in the spotlight, whether this is intended or not, by good-intentioned parents. When I think back on my childhood, Christmas was the most magical time of the year, full of wonder and excitement. But this magic and wonder – this sense of mystery – was not focused on the joyous mystery of the Incarnation. Rather, it was caught up in the materialism that had taken hold of the Holy Day.
Even into my teens, Christmas was about giving gifts and getting gifts. Christ just happened to be born on that day. While this was not intended, it was the consequence of gift-giving and Santa Claus nonetheless.
It wasn’t until my adulthood that presents lost their importance. With children of our own, my husband and I wrestled over whether we wanted to carry on such a magical part of our childhood – Santa Claus.
Giving Up Santa
Many have cautioned us that taking away Santa is robbing our children of their childhood, imagination, and sense of fantasy. But is the very day we celebrate the Incarnation a day for imaginary folklore? Or is it a day for a joyous mystery that is yet a reality? Should the God-Man have to share the celebrated day of His birth with secular traditions that perpetuate distaste for the veneration of saints?
We are supposed to fill our lives with Christ. If Christ is to fill our lives, then we certainly should have no room for a secularized tradition based on the veneration of a real saint who gave His life to Christ.
Christmas is the day when the Word became Flesh. Yet, we celebrate this day not with wholly Catholic traditions that center on Christ, but with Protestant traditions that have been hijacked themselves by a godless society. With commercialized Christmas traditions, we’ve decided to honor the Christ Child not by giving Him the gifts of our hearts and minds, but instead by giving each other material gifts or giving children gifts from a farcical caricature of Saint Nicholas.
Mystery Over Magic
Some may shake their heads at the notion of taking away Santa from children, or say that this attack on Santa Claus is an attack on childhood itself. Some may ask whether this won’t also take away the magic of Christmas. Even though the use of the word magic is not used in the literal sense, Christmas is not a time of magic. It is a time of mystery and the miraculous. We have the greatest mystery of all time – the Incarnation. What other “magic” could possibly substitute for such a joyous, miraculous mystery?!
Yes, my children will not experience the same magic I experienced in my childhood. But they will experience something greater that will not be squelched or stifled by a mythical substitute. The “magic” they will experience will be real; it will be the fullness of Truth. There will be no “growing out” of this belief or tradition as children usually grow out of the belief in Santa Claus. Instead, they will grow in belief.
We constantly hear these days about being “authentically Catholic.” I often wonder what people may mean by this when we have the greatest opportunity at Christmastime to show our authenticity, our deepness of Catholic Tradition. By moving gift-giving back to the Feast of Saint Nicholas and celebrating Christmas Day with hearts and minds turned to Christ only, we are embracing our “authenticity”.
Giving Glory to God and Christ
Some may think that this is a move to demonize Santa Claus and take away the imaginations of children. But it most certainly is not. Santa is not a demon because Santa is not even real. There is nothing immoral or sinful about the folklore character. Children who believe in Santa will not fall away from the Faith when they find out he is not real. And no one is a “bad Catholic” for carrying on this ‘magical’ tradition.
However, Christ demands our all. We were not created simply to avoid sin and immorality but rather to give glory to the Father and to the Son. We are called to live and continually grow in virtue; to continually grow in love of Christ. When our hearts are full of Him, is there room for anything else?