Yes, Virginia, there is a St. Nicholas

grk icon3 wmasterThis isn’t really a breaking news story, but it shows up in newspapers from time to time. This is how I started a Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic several years ago:

We see the headlines every two or three years during the holidays. A pastor preaches on the true meaning of Christmas, warning about sins of selfishness and materialism. Then, in a moment of candor, disaster strikes.

This time the dateline was Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Local newspapers, followed by national wire services, reported that Father Ruben Rocha of St. Pius X Catholic School did something shocking during a Mass for students in kindergarten through third grade. He told the children that there is no Santa Claus. The church hierarchy sprang into action.

“There’s a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or the place or the age group to be talking about the true meaning of Christmas, at least in terms that young children cannot understand,” Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the media.

Father Rocha apologized in writing to parents. Few details of his sermon are known beyond reports that, in response to a child’s question, he said that parents eat the milk and cookies left for Santa.

The Santa question is hard to avoid, this time of year.

Thus, a year ago, Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher decided to have a Dallas Morning News showdown between the pro- and antii-Santa worldviews, with me taking the anti-Santa side of things (but pro-St. Nicholas of Myra) and the Catholic writer Erin Manning voting in favor of telling children all about the big man in the red suit. Rod’s a pro-Santa guy, too, the heretic.

Anyway, Rod decided to start a new online thread on the same topic the other day. Here’s a sample of what I had to say:

Here is the key question: Does saying “yes” to St. Nicholas automatically mean saying “no” to Santa Claus? Even before we converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, my wife and I had made the decision that — in our house — the answer would be affirmative. The reason was simple: We didn’t want to say things to our children that we do not believe are true.

In other words, we believe that the whole season of Nativity Lent and Christmas belong, first and foremost, to the church. That’s an issue — as the Orthodox would say — of Christian Tradition with a “big T.”

coke santa360While Erin responded, in part, by arguing:

Are we lying to our children, with our ancient stories and cherished poems of a kindly saint who loves all children and hears their whispered wishes and dreams? Not at all — we are telling them the truth. It’s just that some truths can’t be found in scholarly lectures or discovered in dry books of facts.

When we teach our wide-eyed little ones the legend of St. Nicholas, we are teaching them essential lessons about faith, hope and unconditional love. When we sit by glowing embers to share with them our December stories, we instruct them in such virtues as generosity, patience and the sort of kindness that expects no reward. And they are able to learn these things from us because for a few short weeks every year, we find it possible to enter the world of make-believe.

So, what do you think, gentle GetReligion readers?

The key, for me, is whether Christmas is a holy season or not. This is one of those cases in which it really is hard to see the forest for the trees. Viewed from an historical perspective, there really is a giant news story out there right now in the public square.

The story can be stated in a question: When is Christmas? I put it this way, in a Christmas-season column the other day for Scripps. Except, it really wasn’t a Christmas-season column. That was the whole point.

Here’s the bottom line. For centuries, Christmas was a 12-day season that began on Dec. 25th and ended on Jan. 6th with the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. Thus, the season of Christmas followed Christmas Day, with most people preparing for the holy day in a festive blitz during the final days or even hours, with many stores staying open until midnight on Christmas Eve.

Today, everything has been flipped around, with the Christmas or Holiday season preceding Dec. 25.

So is Christmas about to begin or is it about to end? What’s happening (a) in your local media (click for the classic) and (b) in, for those of you who are Christians, your churches?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Don

    We’d be lying to our children if we told them that St. Nicholas heard and answered their prayers. But we played a game with our children about Santa Clause. Like many other things we teased them with, they were often (in the early days) uncertain, but they always suspected we were pulling their legs. We all had (have – even though they’re ages 16-25) a lot of fun with it.

  • tmatt


    So your stance is against the ancient church’s teachings on the saints, correct?

    And, of course, a saint does not “answer their prayers.” The saints, in the teachings of the ancients, join the petitioners in their prayers to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

    So, Don, you are arguing for a Protestant, pro-Santa stance?

  • John Pageless

    The mythology of Santa Clause isn’t just based on Saint Nicholas… It also has quite a number of Pagan influences as well, such as The Holly King and Odin.

    I personally feel that the “truth” about Santa Clause is a mixed bag. We shouldn’t let children believe that there is literally a man that lives at the North Pole who delivers presents on Christmas. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason why that means that the myth of Santa Clause needs to die. We just need to be honest about Santa being a symbol of the holiday rather than a literal person.

    At least, that is how I plan on explaining it to my children.


  • tmatt


    Correct. All of which is another part of explaining Santa (don’t forget the role of the advertising industry in NYC).

    It is also hard to talk about St. Nicholas without having to take some kind of stand on Santa. The subject, with young children, is GOING to come up.

    I was raised Protestant, so the silence on all of this was normal. I guess Santa is an option, there. But is it a good option?

  • MarkAA

    It’s not difficult to tell your children about the real St. Nicholas and also let them play along with the red suited Santa Claus. I’m a pretty traditional Christian (LCMS Lutheran with Catholic background) and don’t play fast and loose with the Bible. Christmas is about Jesus, and that’s where the focus has to be. But, it’s fine to let kids know about how our secular culture sees the Christian holiday and that part of the secular celebration includes a kindly guy named Santa Claus … who is based on an ancient real man named Saint Nikolaus of Myra, in Turkey, who was loving and kind and gave gifts to the poor. Kids are smart enough to know the difference, and long after they’ve given up their beliefs in Santa Claus, they’ll have the knowledge of St. Nikolaus and the Christian origins deeply held.

    When our kids were young, we didn’t actively tell them about the secular Santa Claus, but they saw the world’s presentation of him at stores, in books, on TV, etc. and they asked us if he were real. We asked them what they thought, let them believe what they wanted, and reminded them (fairly frequently) what Christmas really is about: Celebrating the birth of Christ.

    I’ve never given a rip about the “pagan” influences on secular Christmas. So what. Christians who know their scriptures and know what the Christian church teaches have no reason to apologize for Christianizing any old pagan stuff. The Christian message and truth are so much more powerful and meaningful than the pagan ideas and practices they replaced that there’s no reason to be leery of them. Good to know of them — sure. But we needn’t apologize for adopting them, and certainly don’t need to fear them.

  • tmatt

    On Faith avoids the really big question, but asks:

    * Santa and the Jews?

    * Santa and the atheists?

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  • Mattk

    I was raised to not believe in Santa. My parents joked about Santa bring presents but the tags always said, “To Matt from Mom and Dad”.

    I just watched Miracle on 34th street (non-colorized) last night. There are some interesting paralels between that movie and the Church’s teaching and the life of St. Nicholas.

    It seems to me that Santa Claus is an attempt to hold on to the love and hope that comes with the Christian life, without troubling about that imperious King born in Bethlehem; not very much unike Kant’s attempt to have Christian morality without Him.

    My sons always ask at the begnning ofevery bookand movie, “Is this a true story”? For Miracle on 34th Street and A Chrstmas Carol (either the ’38 or ’51 versions) I always tell them that the stories are not true, that they were written by men, but that we can still learn from them.

  • Tom Stanton

    Tough question. My wife and I have 3-month old. We’re also about half-way to converting to E. Orthodoxy so it’s kind of a sticky-wicket for us.

    While I accept the ancient Church’s teachings of the saints, I also enjoy fairy-tale and faerie. So – how do you keep the stories of the saints as true and fairy-tales as well…fairy-tales. So, our plan is to play Santa but teach about St. Nicholas. Very simply, St. Nicholas lived in history, Santa lives only in story. I think our children will get it – I certainly did.

    The very modern, protestant, evangelical church, of which we are members, makes the season about Jesus but also has Santa at our big Christmas Extravaganza every year. In this church, ancient means before iPods and I definitely keep my prayers to the Theotokos under wraps. So, the Christmas season is definitely post-thanksgiving Dec. 25. But I am going to teach a “History of Christmas” Sunday school – and we’ll talk about the 12-days….without all the birds.

  • Jerry

    I think that the anti-Santa contingent has lost track of the truth expressed in the “Yes, Virginia” letter. Certainly at some point children will understand that Santa Claus is a metaphor and not physically real. I can almost go along with Terry’s column, but I think that was overly literal. In this hyper-commercialized era, everything is bent to serve commerce, but still, Santa Claus can stand as a metaphor for a deeper spiritual reality. And there’s nothing wrong in explaining to kids at a certain age how the idea that is Santa Claus came to be.

  • Mollie

    I grew up in a household where we joked about the American Santa but didn’t “believe” in him.

    As an LCMS Lutheran, we believe Christmas is a 12-day liturgical season beginning at Christmas. Advent was taken very seriously in my home, as it continues to be, with an Advent wreath and extra worship and penitence. In many ways I think the loss of Advent is just as much of a problem as the loss of a 12-day Christmas to Epiphany season and its effects on the spiritual health of Christians just as deadening.

    My husband and I put our few months old’s new pink, fury boots from her grandparents out for St. Nicholas Day earlier this month and she got gifts in them. As she grows, we’ll continue to teach her about the great bishop of Myra as well as other saints — always focusing on what they can teach us about Christ.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    MarkAA wrote:

    The Christian message and truth are so much more powerful and meaningful than the pagan ideas and practices they replaced that there’s no reason to be leery of them. Good to know of them — sure. But we needn’t apologize for adopting them, and certainly don’t need to fear them.

    I would certainly agree that there is no reason for Christians to be leery or apologetic for transforming culture. After all, that is one of the main ways historical change happens and how ideologies interact. But I would suggest that if those ancient pagan ideas were so meaningless and powerless, then one might ask why ancient Christians found so much power and meaning in the ideas of Marcus Aurelius, Aristotle, Plotinus and Plato? After all, Thomas Aquinas certainly thought it appropriate to refer to Aristotle as simply “The Philosopher.” I certainly wouldn’t call that choice of words meaningless. Nor I suspect, would contemporary Pagans, who find great power, meaning and solace in ancient pagan ideas and practices, as well as the festival of Yule and the rebirth of the Sun.

  • C. Wingate

    Sources in the Wingate household can neither confirm nor deny….

  • C. Wingate

    And actually, I think the “comes before” theory is listening too closely to commerce and not enough to the rest of the culture. Commerce makes a big deal out of the preparation, because that is after all how they survive. This story is so perennial that it is impossible to believe that there isn’t a reservoir of more or less (western) orthodox belief about how the season is formed to drive it.

  • Peggy

    I have had some conflict on this front. We talk about St. Nicholas and that Santa is another name for him. I have described vaguely St. Nick helping the children at some level they can understand. One of our boys’ middle name is Nicolai, so he’s very proud to be named after that saint. [We're Roman Catholic] I am a bit irked by (public PreK) teachers (a Catholic–but that doesn’t mean much beyond culture in this town) saying Santa is watching, giving some omniscient power of God’s to a guy in red. [I don't think it's their place; but at least the word Christmas can be said and secular songs sung.]

    What really irks me is our pastor putting a Santa hat at the end of Christmas masses de-greeting folks on the way out and talking of Santa bringing presents during a homily (though geared toward kids). I don’t think Santa has a place in the Church, except in brief passing, acknowledging kids’ hopes for goodies. Jesus must be the focus.

  • Jerry

    Today’s USA Weekend Magazine had a “Yes Virginia” story that spoke to me. One line I particularly liked is His spirit is reserved for those who see diamonds in the snow.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Can I take this opportunity to plug my book, Santa Claus: Is He For Your Child??

  • J. Townsend

    One more vote for no Santa, but we talk an aweful lot about St. Nicholas (1 five year old, 1 almost 2).

    On the 6th we gave them chocolate for St. Nicholas Day.

    (WELS Lutheran – former LCMS)

  • James Kabala

    I wish Mr. Mattingly wouldn’t continue to repeat the myth (implicitly in this post, explicitly elsewhere)that Santa’s red suit comes from Coca-Cola.


  • tmatt

    When it comes to Santa images, Thomas Nast deserves a lot of the credit.

    But anyone who studies the actual look of the modern Santa will end up with the Santa ads.

    I never said the red suit comes from Coke. I said that the complete image of the modern Santa originates with those famous ad images. It is the best example of the archetype.

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  • Jeff

    I agree with TMatt. The only defense I’ve heard for doing Santa Clause is that the make believe character can be used to teach values. Um, why not use the saint upon which he is based? Or other saints? One of the reasons that we have the Synaxaristes is for that end (at least among us Orthodox), and these are actually real people.

    I love fantasy as much as the next person. However, Santa is not simply some mythical storybook we read to our kids. Many parents go to great pains to convince their children that he is real, and woe to the poor unfortunate who tells them otherwise. My children understand that I believe what I say I believe, and I don’t need to introduce doubts by pretending so hard that I believe in something that I don’t