An explanation of the true origin of Santa Claus as distinct from St. Nicholas, as well as guidelines for parents in dealing with this legend.
Many people think that Santa Claus is St. Nicholas "in disguise." Actually the two figures have nothing in common except the name. When the Dutch came to America and established the colony of New Amsterdam, their children enjoyed the traditional "visit of St. Nicholas" on December 5, for the Dutch had kept this ancient Catholic custom even after the Reformation. Later, when England founded the colony of New York in the same territory, the kindly figure of Sinter Klaas (pronounced like Santa Claus) soon aroused the desire among the English children of having such a heavenly visitor come to their own homes, too.
The English settlers were glad and willing to comply with the anxious wish of their children. However, the figure of a Catholic saint and bishop was not acceptable in their eyes, especially since many of them were Presbyterians to whom a "bishop" was repugnant. Also, they did not celebrate the feasts of saints according to the ancient Catholic calendar.
The dilemma was solved by transferring the visit of the mysterious man whom the Dutch called Santa Claus, from December 5 to Christmas, and by introducing a radical change in the figure itself. It was not merely a "disguise" but the ancient saint was completely replaced by an entirely different character. Some clever mind invented this substitution in the eighteenth century.
Behind the name Santa Claus no longer stands the traditional figure of St. Nicholas but the pagan Germanic god Thor (after whom Thursday is named). To show the origin of the modern Santa Claus tale let us give some details about the god Thor from ancient Germanic mythology.
Thor was the god of the peasants and the common people. He was represented as an elderly man, jovial and friendly, of heavy build, with a long white beard. His element was the fire, his color red. The rumble and roar of thunder were said to be caused by the rolling of his chariot, for he alone among the gods never rode on horseback but drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats (called Cracker and Gnasher). He was fighting the giants of ice and snow, and thus became the Yule-god. He was said to live in the "Northland" where he had his palace among icebergs. By our pagan forefathers he was considered as the cheerful and friendly god, never harming the humans but rather helping and protecting them. The fireplace in every home was especially sacred to him, and he was said to come down through the chimney into his element, the fire. (See H. A. Guerber, Myths of Northern Lands, vol. I, p. 61 ff., New York, 1895).
Here, then, is the true origin of our "Santa Claus." It certainly was a stroke of genius that produced such a charming and attractive figure for our children from the withered pages of pagan mythology. With the Christian saint, however, whose name he still bears, this Santa Claus has really nothing to do. To be historically correct we would rather have to call him "Father Thor" or some such name.
Perhaps this will make it clear to parents why it is so difficult to explain "Santa Claus" as St. Nicholas. There is no basis for such an explanation; the two figures are entirely different. Considering the historical background, it might even seem better not to tell the children at all that "Santa Claus" is another name of St. Nicholas. Should we not rather let them consider St. Nicholas, their patron saint (December 6) and Santa Claus, the delivery man of presents (December 24) as two completely unrelated figures, as they really are?
The fairytale of Santa Claus will not be abolished easily, despite the efforts of well-meaning people. Nor does it seem necessary. Children do like fairytales, and Santa Claus is one of the most charming of them. Catholic parents might use it without harm, provided they apply some safeguards to avoid an undue overstressing of the Santa Claus figure. Perhaps the following suggestions might help:
Keep the Santa tale in its simple, appealing form and shun the corruptions introduced by commercial managers, like Santason, Mrs. Santa Claus, and similar repulsive features.
Never allow the figure of Santa Claus to dominate the child's mind. The Child Jesus must be the main figure in all his Christmas thinking. Picture to him Santa as merely a servant and deliveryman, delightful but not very important. I know a mother who had explained this to her children. One day she pointed out to them how Santa Claus was to be seen in every department store and how he drew so much attention to himself. The children found it highly amusing that this delivery-servant of God should try to make himself the center of the celebration. "He is a little dumb, isn't he?" said the girl, "but Jesus likes him and we like him, too."
Do not let your children present their wishes to Santa. If you want them to write down what they desire, let them write to the Child Jesus according to the old Catholic custom. Santa does not give the presents, he only delivers what the Lord sends.
The above suggestions will also help to lessen the "shock" when the children find out that "there is no Santa." As one mother did when her little boy came full of doubts and asked her if there really was a Santa Claus. Such a question should always be answered in truth, no matter how small the child is.
"Of course not," said mother quietly, "that's only a story for very small children. You are a big boy now, so you understand how it really is. Our dear Lord does not need a deliveryman. He has already given you somebody who loves you very much and who is happy to give you the Christmas presents in His Name. Do you know who these persons are?"The child thought for a moment, then he said, "Daddy and mother?""Yes, my dear," answered she, "and would you not rather that father and I give you the presents? We love you more than Santa Claus does.""Why didn't you tell me that before?""Because it is nice for little children to believe in Santa. Aren't you glad you did?"Again the boy thought for a minute. "Yes, it was nice," he said finally. Then he added, "But it's much nicer now."
Not every case can be handled exactly this way, of course. There are various ways of doing it. However, by following the general idea parents will have no trouble in setting their children straight about the Santa tale when the right moment comes. The descriptions of great disappointment and psychological conflicts we often read about apply only to families where the parents have misled their own children by allowing Santa to take the central place instead of Christ, whose birthday is the only reason for the whole feast.
Activity Source: Year of the Lord in the Christian Home, The (reprinted as Religious Customs in the Family) by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., The Liturgical Press; reprinted by TAN Books and Publishers, 1964