Saint Nicholas of Myra was a remarkable man. No, not because he flew around in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (nine, counting Rudolph) or because he went down chimneys on Christmas Eve to deliver toys, but the real person was a marvel, nonetheless. In fact, it’s a wonder we don’t have a religion based around him, as he was said to have worked miracles and healed people, much like Jesus of Nazareth was said to have done some 300 years before.
Like Jesus, the surviving accounts of St. Nicholas’ life were not written down until many years after his death, so critical thinkers are left to sift through the legends and draw conclusions about what was real and what wasn’t. Did he really, in the dark of night, drop bags of gold through an open window to help a destitute man provide dowries for his daughters and thus help them avoid lives of prostitution? Did he really calm a storm when he traveled to the Holy Land by boat? Did he really appear in dreams to Emperor Constantine and order him to release three generals who were sentenced to death? Did he really resurrect three children who had been slaughtered and pickled?
These stories are, of course, implausible, but are they any more implausible than the stories told about Jesus of Nazareth? Do we supposed Jesus really brought people back from the dead, healed the sick by placing his hand on them, calmed stormy seas, even returned from death himself? These stories are also implausible, but are often believed as literal tellings of events in the life of Jesus.
Over the centuries since the death of St. Nicholas, December 6, 343, the tales about his life have grown more and more fanciful. A big turning point came on December 23, 1823, when a poem entitled “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” was first published in the Troy Sentinel, a publication from upstate New York. This poem is the reason why we now celebrate a tradition of St. Nick flying through the sky on his sleigh, coming down chimneys delivering toys, etc. Notably, there was no mention of the North Pole in the poem, but that detail would come along a few decades later.
The idea that Santa hailed from the North Pole is attributed to a series of 33 drawings in Harper’s Weekly. American Artist Thomas Nast, inspired by people who were attempting dangerous expeditions to the unexplored Arctic, submitted his drawings between 1863 and 1886, showing Santa in a place entitled “Santa Claussville, N.P.” The elves also came along some time in the mid-1800’s, when Scandinavian legends surrounding the creatures explained their true purpose was to help Santa make the toys he would deliver on Christmas Eve.
So you see, the Santa Claus tradition we celebrate today is derived from a real person, but the vast majority of the details of his story have almost nothing to do with St. Nicholas, himself. In fact, the things St. Nicholas worked for during his lifetime are all but lost in the trimmings of the imaginary figure we have placed in his stead. This is something he very much has in common with Jesus.
Speaking of imaginary figures, are you aware that Jesus is FAR from the only historical figure believed to be the child of an almighty deity, the others of whom bore the very same pseudo-anthropological template? Take, for example, the Egyptian god Horus, who lived around 3,000 years BC. Horus was the god of the sky, birthday December 25th, born of a virgin, three kings were led to his place of birth by a star in the sky, a teacher by the age of 12 and baptized at age 30. He had 12 disciples, was referred to as the “lamb of God,” was crucified and rose from the dead after three days. (An enlightening look at this correlation to the story of Jesus can be found here.)
The Greek god Attis, circa 1200 BC, follows a similar story line. Attis was born of a virgin on December 25th, was crucified, came back from the dead after three days. The Indian god Krishna was likewise born of a virgin, a star in the East heralded his birth, he performed miracles and was resurrected after being put to death. Dionysus, also of Greece circa 500 BC, was born of a virgin on December 25th, performed miracles, was called “King of Kings” and “Alpha and Omega” and was resurrected after death. The Persian god Mithra was also born of a virgin on December 25th in 1200 BC, had 12 disciples, performed miracles, and was dead for three days before being resurrected.
Do not, by any means, take my word for any of the above. Look them up for yourself! While you’re at it, look up Crite of Chaldea, Jao of Nepal, Thammuz of Syria, Atys of Phrygia, Alcides of Thebes, Holy One of Xaca and Prometheus of Caucasus, to name just a few. It turns out that many of the “miraculous” traits we ascribe to Jesus of Nazareth are nothing more than the “son of god” template applied to many who came before. Once someone is determined to be the child of a deity, the template is therefore applied despite (or in the absence of) any other, more factual, biographical information. You see, facts were not the point.
Today we effectively have two very different religions which call themselves “Christianity.” Marcus Borg, who was an author, professor and essentially a founder of Progressive Christianity referred to the two different views of Jesus as the “pre-Easter” and “post-Easter” Jesus. The Evangelical/fundamentalist movement is built largely on the notion of the “post-Easter” Jesus, or the one who claimed he was God, that the only way to “salvation” was through him, etc. This is the Jesus of the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul of Tarsus. Of course, the Gospel of John was the last one written, dating to some 70-100 years after the death of Jesus, and Paul never met Jesus.
Paul claimed to have a vision in which Jesus appeared to him, but the message he preached about Jesus was so far removed from the living, breathing Jesus that the latter’s primary follower, Peter, and his brother James repeatedly called him in to the temple in Jerusalem to ask him why he was teaching something about Jesus that Jesus, himself, never taught (Galatians 1, Acts 21). This combined “post-Easter” doctrine also largely removes us from the life teachings of Jesus and focuses on preparing for life after death. This seems an awful shame, since Jesus of the first three gospels spent a great deal of time talking about how we should live our corporeal lives and didn’t seem overly concerned about some supernatural afterlife existence.
Let’s shift, then, to the “pre-Easter” Jesus. This Jesus was most particularly concerned with how people treat each other, in particular with bringing about a “heavenly” existence on Earth. In the Apostle’s Creed he even taught his followers to pray for God’s kingdom to be “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Jesus was not looking to sacrifice the present life in order to achieve glory after death. Look no further than Matthew 22:37, where Jesus admonishes us to set aside the ten commandments and focus on just two: love God with our hearts, souls and minds and love our neighbors as ourselves. After all, if we follow those two commandments, won’t the Mosaic laws fall into place naturally?
The “pre-Easter” Jesus wanted to do more than just teach; he wanted to live an example of how he felt people should live to bring about peace and prosperity on Earth. In Mark 10, for example, Jesus speaks about the importance of serving others and putting others first. “44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As such, Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, offered forgiveness and grace to sinners, even washed the feet of his disciples despite their objections. His every word and deed convey the message that we are here to help each other and to put the needs of others above even our own needs. It’s not about getting into Heaven; it’s about creating Heaven on Earth.
One of the true pariahs of human existence is hate. Hate very often leads to judgment, violence, war and always suffering. In Matthew 5, then, Jesus speaks out against hate, saying: 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The rationale here is clear, as it is difficult to hate someone you pray for. Prayer opens your heart and your mind and enables you to forgive, even if someone has done something otherwise believed to be unforgivable to you. Forgiveness is a super power; it allows us to move on and release the negativity that otherwise threatens to consume us. That’s why Jesus made love and forgiveness cornerstones of his ministry.
These are just a few examples, but we can clearly see how Jesus the human being clearly taught the importance of loving each other, caring for each other and doing for each other. There is only one living, breathing organism on this planet and it is this planet. It’s all of us. It’s the people, the animals, the plants, the oceans, the rivers – absolutely everything. When we kill off species of animals, we diminish the ecosystem. When we kill other people, we diminish the ecosystem. When we pollute water, destroy natural resources, deface beautiful landscapes….all of these things prevent us from bringing about God’s kingdom – on Earth as it is in Heaven. We deny the message of Jesus and we deny our true selves.
To spend time focused only on the story of Jesus as conveyed in the Gospel of John and the Letters of Paul is to ignore the most potent parts of his teachings.
Did St. Nicholas fly around with reindeer, live at the North Pole and jump down chimneys to deliver toys to children all over the world? Of course not, no more than he healed the sick, calmed raging storms or resurrect pickled children. That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate Santa Claus as the spirit of Christmas and a lesson for children about the importance of being good and the joy of giving. It is equally implausible that Jesus of Nazareth brought people back from the dead, calmed storms, and returned from the dead to continue his teachings. Does that mean there aren’t amazing lessons to learn from those stories? Certainly not. Let’s just make sure the message of the real person, the Pre-Easter Jesus, isn’t lost in the shuffle.