The exploits of the 4th Century Bishop of Myra, the city in modern day Turkey, S. Nicholas—who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, for helping the poor and for kindness to children—have given rise to the legend of the British Father Christmas and the North American Santa Claus.
Such stories are not historically true in the sense that we understand historical. How then, are they useful? The answer lies in their power to illustrate the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ. As aspects of the Church’s tradition, they bear witness to God’s love.
There is, of course, biblical precedent for such use of legend: the book of Jonah is an obvious example of a legend which illustrates truth. When we speak of the trustworthiness and truth of Holy Scripture, we speak not just of historical verifiability, but of divinely inspired witness to the truth of God in Jesus Christ.
In the same spirit, we can accept the stories of Father Christmas as witness to the truth of God, regardless of the historical verifiability of the legends which surround them.
This raises a thorny question for us: does our tradition of Father Christmas illustrate the gospel or obscure it?
When Father Christmas becomes the focus of our Christmas celebrations instead of Jesus Christ, it surely obscures it. In particular, the idea that Father Christmas only gives presents to good children entirely perverts the good news that God is generous to all who believe in his Son, regardless of good works. In the well-known Christmas song we learn that:
He's making a list,
And checking it twice;
He’s gonna find out
Who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town.
To place this idea of justification by good works at the centre of Christmas is nothing short of a scandal. Jesus Christ is given to all.
God does not only save those who are holy already, in fact far from it. For what would be the point of forgiving a saint?! In our Holy Communion service in the Methodist Worship Book we are told that ‘the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world’ not that ‘the Lamb of God takes away the sins which were taken away before or do not exist’.
Father Christmas is here to stay, but a Christian need not necessarily see any conflict between Father Christmas and Jesus Christ. We can be stirred by the legends and stories of Father Christmas, give gifts and enjoy this time of hospitality, welcome and friendship, to pass on the good news about Jesus Christ to others: not just a hollow greeting, but the message of salvation by God’s grace through faith in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Blog posts written by the Minister and Members of Frodsham Methodist Church.