Every Christmas in the yard of a house not far from us stands a manger scene.
The Christ Child rocks gently in his small white wooden manger, his halo glowing from the spotlight.
Instead of Mary and Joseph gazing at their holy infant, or even angels surrounding the yard with praise, an unlikely figure stands next to the makeshift cradle.
Santa Claus kneels before the baby Jesus.
I confess the first year I saw Santa genuflecting before Jesus, I laughed.
It seemed (at the time) such a forced reconciliation of a cultural (secular?) tradition (Santa) with the spiritual significance of Christmas (the birth of Jesus). I kept this attitude, laughing all the way, for several years.
A 2013 poll by Pew Research suggests I wasn’t alone with my attitude toward Santa.
Only 28 percent of the Protestants polled included pretend visits from Santa in their Christmas Eve celebrations, even though 75 percent had grown up with the Santa tradition.
The poll also showed that the younger the age of parents, the less likely they were to include Santa in holiday celebrations.
In other words, Santa seems to be falling out of favor with Christians.
But should we leave Santa out of Christmas? I am not so sure anymore.
First, I think as Christians we have to understand that we created the celebration of Christmas.
I am not arguing that Christians created the birth of Christ. Of course I believe that Jesus was born, fully God and fully human, to the Virgin Mary. But was he born on Dec. 25?
The truth is we don’t know when Jesus was born.
Gerry Bowler, in his 2016 Oxford book, “Christmas in the Crosshairs,” (recently reviewed by my colleague Thomas S. Kidd), underscores that Dec. 25 was a choice made by the early church.
It was a reasonable choice that probably had nothing to do with paganism. It was also a controversial choice, as many preferred the date of Jan. 6 and some even argued that Christians shouldn’t commemorate birthdays at all (even the birthday of Jesus).
By the 6th century, Dec. 25 as the liturgical celebration (Mass) of the birth of Christ (Christ-mas) was a choice that had been firmly made by the Christian community and entrenched in the Christian calendar.
Second, when we understand Christmas as an intentionally created celebration, we are more tolerant of cultural changes and accretions.
For example, sermons in medieval England emphasized a Christmas tradition that Jesus was born at midnight.
Why? To medieval Christians, midnight represented the darkest time (literally) and the time of greatest peace (everyone was sleeping).
Hence, Jesus was born at midnight to show he was the “prince of peace” (came at the time when the world was most at rest) and to emphasize Jesus as the light of the world: “Christ was born at midnight and turned the darkness of night into daylight” and thus brought light to all trapped in the darkness of sin.
That brings me to Santa as a cultural accretion to Christmas.
Bowler, in his book, “Santa Claus: A Biography,” has traced the evolution of Santa from the 4th century Turkish saint to the jolly round elf with flying reindeer.
Santa today is often controversial, especially for Christians. Santa is seen as deflecting from Jesus, as putting emphasis on material gifts and commercialism rather than on the celebration of our Savior’s birth.
Bowler includes a great quote from a modern Santa critic: “Santa can be called the ‘Grinch’ who stole genuine Christmas traditions and replaced them with the goofy, giddy and glitzy.”
To my medieval ears, however, I can’t help but think that our modern problem with Santa is that we have forgotten what he really represents.
In the world of medieval England, St. Nicholas was not celebrated at Christmas; he was celebrated before Christmas on Dec. 6. His story emphasized a man who gave his riches to help those in need, especially children.
A 14th-century Middle English sermon explains that “Saint Nicholas is highly praised” because of his “great compassion.”
It then tells the most famous story about St. Nicholas: a father desperate to save his family from poverty decided to send his young daughters into prostitution.
“When Nicholas heard of this, he had great compassion on them; and one night, he secretly cast gold in a bag through a window into the father’s chamber,” the sermon explains. “In the morning when the man found the gold, he was so glad and with the gold he (arranged) the marriage of his eldest daughter.”
St. Nicholas continued his nightly visits, secretly giving bags of gold two more times to enable the marriage of all three daughters.
Hence was born the medieval Santa: a benevolent gift-giver who, because of his great compassion and love of God, helped those in need, especially the young.
Indeed, just as medieval sermons emphasized Jesus as bringing goodwill to the world, St. Nicholas was emphasized as bringing goodwill to families.
It seems rather ironic to me that this man of “great compassion” whose love of God empowered him to give his riches to those in need is now seen as a competitor to Christ, as a symbol of materialism and greed.
In a world growing increasingly cynical about Christianity, it seems that rather than banning Santa from our Christmas traditions, perhaps we would do better by bringing back the spirit of medieval Santa: compassionate giving motivated by the love of Christ.
Beth Allison Barr is associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. A longer version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where she blogs regularly. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @bethallisonbarr.
Beth Allison Barr is an associate dean in the Baylor Graduate School, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.