A Catholic Christmas Story

The Origins of Santa Claus and Other Popular Christmas Traditions

Heidi Voigt

Christmas is a holiday widely celebrated throughout Western civilization. Because of this popularity, the traditions involved in the celebration of Christmas vary widely between religions and nationalities. With secular and religious traditions blending, it is often difficult to discern the story of the Catholic Christmas from the commercialized holiday focused on the giving and receiving of gifts.

Perhaps the most obvious connection between the Catholic Christmas and secular Christmas is Santa Claus. According to History.com, the legend of Santa Claus finds its roots in the life of Saint Nicholas. While the majority of information regarding this Saint is speculation, the stories which remain from his life tell the story of a man who gave away his possessions to help others.

One of the best known legends of Saint Nicholas comes from the third century. Saint Nicholas saved three sisters from lives of prostitution or slavery by gifting them with a dowry so they could be married. It was generosity like this, History.com writers claimed, that allowed Saint Nicholas to grow into the cultural icon he is today.

“Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland,” the site said.

Saint Nicholas arrived in America around 1773 when a New York newspaper began reporting on Dutch settlers who gathered each year to honor the Saint, known in Dutch as Sinterklaas, on the anniversary of his death. Saint Nicholas continued to gain popularity in America, and in 1809, Washington Irving referred to Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in a popular history book.

Santa Claus would become cemented in American society in the early 19th century as stores began to commercialize the holiday. As Christmas became centered around gifts, stores discovered that real life Santa Clauses attracted larger numbers of shoppers, and Santa Claus became a staple in malls.

This commercialization of Christmas is another trait inherited from the Catholic Christmas story. According to Deacon Rick Scheierl, the giving of gifts comes from the three wise men who arrived in Bethlehem with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Christ Child.

While people around the world rush to buy gifts and await Santa Claus, Catholics, and many other Christian denominations, begin the season of Advent. According to Deacon Scheierl, Advent both marks the beginning of the Church’s calendar year, and starts the season of joyful waiting of Christ’s arrival.

Deacon Scheierl said Catholics are actually celebrating and waiting for three arrivals.

“First, we celebrate the historical birth of Christ over 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. Second, we rejoice in the Coming of Christ as he is present in our lives today, in the Eucharist, Scripture, Prayer, and in each person we meet. Lastly, we await the return of Christ when he returns at the end of time as judge of the living and the dead.”

Youth Minister Doug Watercott chimes in on the celebration of Advent with the assertion that the season is about more than the birth of Jesus.

“The real reason for our celebration has nothing to do with celebrating a birthday. Its real meaning is that God loved us so much that he wanted to become like us and took on human skin in the form of the baby Jesus. He lived and walked this earth as we do and eventually suffered and died for each one us,” he said.

Both Watercott and Deacon Scheierl agree that while the celebration of Advent is not exclusive to Catholics, the act of penance is. Penance, or reconciliation, is a sacrament specific to the Catholic Church’s celebration of Advent, and includes a confession of sins as a way to prepare for the arrival of Christ.

While Catholics are now free to express their religion, during the Protestant Reformation, there were times throughout history in which Catholic beliefs were not tolerated. This led many Catholics to hide their religion in symbols which found their way into common Christmas songs. For this reason, many traditionally Catholic songs such as “We Three Kings” and “Silent Night” worked their way into mainstream culture.

According to Watercott, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written as a catechism song for young Catholics. This created a song which each of the twelve gifts has, “a surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the Church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember.”

“The ‘True Love’ one hears in the song is Jesus Christ, because love was truly born on Christmas Day. The partridge in the pear tree also represents him because that bird is willing to sacrifice its life if necessary to protect its young by feigning injury to draw away predators.” Underlying meanings such as these are found throughout the entirety of the song with mentions to the gospels, the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and other Catholic symbols.

From Santa Claus to gift giving to holiday songs, the story of Christmas has been influenced by the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church for hundreds of years.