In my last entry, I talked about Christmas memories and answered four questions about Christmas.  Here are some more to add to the list.  Some in my last post were personal.  Here I give historical and ethical questions with potential ways to answer:

1.  Who is the historical person behind our modern notions of Santa Claus?

There are many historical strands that go into our modern invention of the character of Santa Claus.  I once did a study of these historical threads and found it quite facinating.  One of the pagan pictures that interject into our modern portrait is the false Norse god Odin.  Note the table of comparison below:

Saint Nicholas Norse god Odin
Long beard Long beard
Rides in a sleigh driven by reindeer flying in the sky Rides a white horse in the sky
Children have stockings by fireplace and leave food for Santa Claus Children would place boots by the fireplace with food for Odin’s horse
Santa leaves gifts for children by fireplace Odin would replace the food with gifts or candy

However, the one strand that I passed on most strongly to my children when they were growing up was the Christian personage of St. Nick or St. Nicholas, the fourth century Church Father who, according to some Christian traditions and/or legends, attended Nicea and supported the orthodox trinitarian formulation over against the Arians.  One can visit his tomb today.  He was known in his lifetime for generosity.  There was perhaps an inevitability that pagan examples of that (like Odin) would be conflated with traditions honoring this Church Father.

2.  Is it possible to borrow pagan elements in culture (and pass them on down) without violating Christian ethics? 

This is a hard question for some.  Let me illustrate with one particular Christmas tradition that is debated — the evergreen Christmas tree.  We well know that Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Christians should not put up Christmas trees since they are pagan in origin.  It is true that near the time of the Winter Solstice, some pagans(especially Scandinavian) developed the tradition of putting up an oak tree in honor of the god Odin.  However, as Christianity developed, Christians began to substitute the evergreen to give a distinctively Christian portrait of putting up a winter tree.  So, in this case, the putting up of an evergreen Christmas tree does not seem to violate any Christian ethics.  Bible passages such as Jeremiah 10, which are used to attack the practice of putting up Christmas trees, are talking about the putting up of trees idols.  It is doubtful that the modern practice of putting up a tree has any semblance of idolatry in most Christian circles.

3.  Can we (Christians) give new meaning to old forms in such an appropriation (Christmas trees, yule logs, etc.)?

I suggest that the answer is probably “yes.”  Some of the days of the week are named after pagan gods.  For example, Saturday is named after the god Saturn.  In the earliest days when Saturn’s name was attached to a day of the week, no doubt pagans put a more serious connotation to the connection.  Such a connotation does not exist today.  We do not have to come up with another, Christian name for Saturday.  We do not surrender to paganism when we call the day Saturday.  An example might be possible from the Old Testament.  On the lid of the ark of the covenant are carved figurines of cherubim.  Does this violate the command not to make statues of any creatures?  No.  The command was not to make such figures with the purpose of worshipping them.  God Himself commanded the Tabernacle to be made with such figures.  Physical figures by themselves do not necessarily carry inherent meaning that is universal.  It is the use to which they are put that matters most.  This is not to say that Christians should be unthoughtful in such things.  We must be careful and not cast aspersion on the gospel of Christ in any way.

4.  Does practicing the story of Santa in one’s Christian family constitute a pretend game with children or is it lying?

This is perhaps an ethical dilemma that bothers some Christians but many do not see this as a problem.  Some are worried that it crosses the line.  It would be a pretty big “pretend game” for all of life that might lend itself to children rejecting the invisible God they cannot see when they grow up.  If parents have lied about Santa, maybe they have lied about God and Jesus.  I see this as a gray area of wisdom application.  Christians should acknowledge the liberty of conscience given to other believers on such issues even if emotions run strong on the issue.  In my family, we allowed the symbols of Christmas with respect to Santa to exist but never talked in an absolutist way about them to our children.  I told them early on the historical story of Saint Nicholas from the 4th century.  By this means, I think we blunted the idea of a lie in the celebration of Christmas.  There certainly was no worship of Santa at Christmas time in our house.

More Christmas memories on the way.  Merry Christmas to all this Christmas Day 2012.