According to the Bible, Jesus is the reason for the season, but according to Wall Street, Santa Claus is the economic engine that keeps the season going full throttle from Black Friday until Christmas Eve. When it comes to influencing hearts, minds and wallets during the Christmas season, who really rules—Jesus or Santa?
A brief history of Christmas
Christmas was not always associated with the birth of Jesus and gift giving. In fact, the Bible does not mention Christmas, and early Christians did not observe the birthday of Christ. The holiday we currently celebrate as Christmas is a combination of pagan and Christian traditions that has evolved over the centuries.
There are varying stories as to how our modern-day Christmas celebrations came to be. One version involves the Roman celebration of the sun. In ancient pagan times, the Romans celebrated Saturnus (the harvest god) and Mithras (the ancient god of light). These “Saturnailia” celebrations came on or just after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, to announce that winter is not forever, that life continues, and to offer an invitation to celebrate.
As a means to avoid persecution during the Roman pagan festival and partially to join in the festive celebrations going on all around them, early Christians began decorating their homes with Saturnalia holly. As the number of Christians increased and their customs prevailed, the celebrations took on a Christian observance.
Christians believed that Jesus was the light of the world, so the early Christians thought it was fitting to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But the early church actually did not officially celebrate the birth of Christ in December until the Romans declared that church services should be held during this time to celebrate “The Nativity of our Lord and Savior.”
However, since no one was certain in which month Christ was born, Nativity was often held in September, which was during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets (modern-day Rosh Hashanah). In fact, for more than 300 years, people observed the birth of Jesus on various dates.
In 325AD, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, introduced Christmas as an immovable feast on Dec. 25. But despite Constantine’s decree, early Christians, recognizing the date as a pagan festival, did not share in the emperor’s good intentions. Christmas failed to gain universal recognition among Christians until quite recently. American states did not legally recognized Christmas until the 1800s.
Saint Nick becomes Santa Claus
Just as there are many historical versions as to how and when America came to celebrate Christmas, there are also many sides to the story of how Saint Nicholas became America’s Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas (270-310A.D.), the patron saint of children, became one of the youngest bishops ever at age 17. At age 30, he became the Bishop of Myra in what is now considered a part of modern-day Turkey. Saint Nicholas came from a wealthy family and became well known for supporting the needy. He would often be seen in red and white bishop’s robes and riding on a donkey, handing out gifts to children.
During the middle ages, many churches were built in honor of Saint Nicholas. The anniversary of his death, Dec. 6, became a day to exchange gifts. Dutchman Peter Stuyvesant, founder of New York City, and his fellow immigrants brought with them to the New World their tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. Upon arrival in America, Sinterklaas soon took on the American pronunciation, Santa Claus, and America incorporated the ritual of exchanging presents.
Jesus vs. Santa Claus – gift giving and influence
Both Jesus and Santa Claus were known for their history of giving gifts. The presentation of gifts associated with Jesus began at his birth. According to the Bible, upon arriving at the birthplace of Jesus, the wise men presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible records Jesus throughout his life selflessly giving to friends, family and complete strangers.
Santa Claus’ reputation for gift giving is much more discerning than Jesus.
Like Jesus, Santa is always watching. However, unlike Jesus, Santa does not give to the undeserving. Santa is a lot pickier/selective when it comes to who he will give gifts to than Jesus. The popular Christmas song provides a classic example:
You better watch out,
You better not cry
You better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!
He’s making a list,
And checking it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town!
For Christians, Jesus is real. On the other hand, although he is based on the very real Saint Nicholas,
it is widely accepted that the modern-day Santa Claus is a mythic compilation.
So why does Santa Claus, arguably, have just as much—if not more—influence as Jesus during the Christmas season?
“Santa Claus is a less controversial symbol for people to receive, accept and promote. Jesus is totally controversial in his message, method and even in his death, burial and resurrection—everything about Jesus Christ is controversial,” says Najuma Smith-Pollard, program director for the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement at USC. Dr. Smith-Pollard is also senior pastor at Word of Encouragement Community Church in Los Angeles.
“Our nation has historically claimed a Christian foundation, (but) the problem is Jesus doesn’t sell toys. When it comes to influence, if you’re talking about selling toys, Santa has more influence,” said Smith-Pollard.
Parents balance Jesus and Santa
One-in-five adults say they are the parent or guardian of a child in their household who currently believes in Santa Claus, according to the Pew Research Center Survey on Christmas observations. The survey reports that 69 percent of those parents say they plan to pretend that Santa visits their house on Christmas.
Christian parents admit that Santa Claus has a stronger presence than Jesus during the Christmas season. “Whether it’s television, commercials, billboards, as parents with small kids, when they go to school, the question is, “Is Santa Claus real?’ They’re encouraged to take a position on Santa Claus,” said Neema Cyrus-Franklin, online engagement coordinator at Presbytery of the Pacific (the Los Angeles regional office for the Presbyterian church) and a mother of two children, ages 9 and 4.
“Most kids don’t go to private Christian schools and so there’s no talk about Jesus. In general for the Christmas season, it’s definitely identified more so with Santa Claus than Jesus according to the larger public,” said Cyrus-Franklin.
The spirituality of consumerism
In the Bible, Philippians 2:10 states: “. . . at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth.”
In the name of Santa Claus, American consumers shop on Thanksgiving Day and every day thereafter until Christmas Eve. According to Shopper Trak and Adobe, shoppers spent roughly $12.1 billion on Thanksgiving, and on Black Friday sales at retail stores and $4.5 billion in online sales. Adobe noted that Cyber Monday online sales set a record topping $3 billion.
“Big business is the leading force of our nation during Christmas and throughout the year,” said Smith-Pollard. “It’s not ethics. It’s not faith. It’s not morality, and it’s not values. Even though we want to believe these things lead us, when it comes to the bottom line, Santa Claus and all things commercially Christmas is a genius business strategy, and that is the leading force.”
Rev. Kelvin Sauls, senior pastor at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, refers to the increase in spending as the “spirituality of consumerism.” Sauls speculates that, “Because of the spirituality of consumerism that we’ve fallen victim to, there is the appearance that Santa Claus is more popular than Jesus. But my sense is when people are honest with themselves and when they’re willing to dig deep in terms of what their needs are, I would venture to say that there is a longing for some deeper meaning, when it comes to Christmas and what it represents.”
Christmas: Cultural versus religious celebration
Perhaps Santa Claus’ gain in status during the Christmas season can be attributed to more Americans viewing Christmas as cultural tradition than a religious observance as well as an overall decline in Americans who identify themselves as religious.
According to a 2013 Pew Research survey on Christmas beliefs and practices, a majority of Americans—Christian or not—observe Christmas.
The survey revealed that while nine in 10 Americans take part in the holiday that theologically commemorates the birth of Jesus, only about half actually see it as a religious celebration.
The study also showed a nation where Christmas continues to be incredibly popular, but also that the day is increasingly a non-religious cultural event, especially among younger generations. Pew found that religious and non-religious Americans largely celebrate the holiday the same. Although those who believe in Christmas as a religious holiday and those who believe in the virgin birth are much more likely to go to church services for Christmas, both cultural and religious observers were just as likely to gather with family, exchange gifts and take part in the tradition of Santa Claus visiting their homes at night.
“It all speaks to the ubiquity of Christmas in American society that one form or another of observing it, religiously or culturally, is so popular,” said Greg Smith, director of U.S. religion surveys at the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. “Most non-Christians that celebrate say they do it culturally, but even among some non-Christians who celebrate, they say there is a religious element to Christmas.”
Another Pew study released in 2015, showed that Christianity is on the decline; the study showed that there is a decrease in the number of people who identified themselves as Christians in America, not just among younger generations or in certain regions of the country but across race, gender, education and geographic barriers. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years to about 71 percent.
“It’s remarkably widespread,” said Alan Cooperman, director of religion research for the Pew Research Center. “The country is becoming less religious as a whole, and it’s happening across the board.”
But Smith-Pollard argues differently. America is not becoming less religious. “On the contrary, America is a melting pot of many religions. If anything, America is more spiritual now that it has been for centuries. America is becoming a less Christian-only nation. That’s where the trend is changing. Religious practice of every kind is alive and well in America,” said Smith-Pollard.
The changing face of Christmas
Despite the proliferation of Santa Claus during the Christmas season, for the 78 percent of Americans who consider themselves religious, Santa does not wield more influence than Jesus. However, believers and non-believers alike concede that Santa Claus is a powerful marketing tool that comes with the season. As America becomes a nation of multiple religions, traditions and customs like Santa Claus and the observance of Christmas become a part of America’s melting pot, said researchers.
Pollard-Smith is philosophical about the future of Jesus and Santa Claus. “Those who believe that Jesus is still the reason for the season, that won’t change. The long-term impact may be that it’s no longer just about the influence of Jesus versus Santa. It’s the influence of Jesus, Santa, Mohammed, Buddha and so forth. Because of the increasing diversity of religions and observances in our nation, a change in the face of Christmas is inevitable.”