Is Santa a Christian symbol or a religious holiday poacher?

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2011 - 8:22 PM
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Thomas Nast's famous illustration became the basis for Santa Claus.

Weeks before Christmas, a local Jewish essayist urged Jews to stock up on Coke before the annual cans plastered with Santa’s face hit store shelves.

“I have nothing against Santa, but he is a Christian holiday symbol,” wrote Susan Esther Barnes for the hip Minnesota website TCJewfolk.com.

Santa a Christian? This was news to me. I’d always thought of him as a jolly “ho ho ho” holiday thumper, not a “give your life to Jesus” kind of Claus.

So I asked Christians of various stripes and brands. The results weren’t scientific, of course, but not one of them considered Santa a religious symbol.

Some claimed he was a secular rip-off of St. Nicholas, a generous fourth century bishop who died for his Christian faith. While St. Nicholas stood for holiness, Santa Claus became the front man for Madison Avenue.

Over the years, Santa came to symbolize the commercialized, secular version of Christmas, which has run far afield from the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.

That commercial version snowballed after Clement Clarke Moore penned, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”  -- also known as “’Twas the Night before Christmas-- in 1823.

The famous poem described St. Nicholas complete with a sleigh, reindeer and a bundle of toys – the backdrop for today’s Santa Claus.

While some Christians distance themselves from Santa altogether, most have found ways to co-exist with him. Some churches even feature Santa in their Christmas pageants kneeling at crèche displays to remind children that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

So if the secular world poached Santa from the Europeans’ Sinterklaas, Thomas Nast’s white-bearded Santa illustration or St. Nicholas, why do some people insist he’s a Christian? Because many Christians embrace Santa, a Jewish friend told me.

Apparently, not all Jews feel this way. Last week, as Senate leaders were battling over payroll taxes, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken helped to spearhead a bipartisan “Secret Santa” gift giving exchange. He’s a Jew from the Reform tradition.

Sixty-one senators joined in exchanging $10 gifts. Franken’s “Secret Santa” was Joe Lieberman, an independent senator who's also an Orthodox Jew. Lieberman gave him copy of “Unaccustomed Earth” by Jhumpa Lahiri.

So whether Santa is religious or secular is up for grabs. In my view, he's all about the "ho ho ho" and not so much about "ho ho holiness."

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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