The difference between Santa Claus and Christmas

Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sunday is Christmas Day and one of the semi-rare occasions that the day we celebrate the birthday of our Lord, and the day we worship Him, are the same. It happens not with great regularity, but, at the same time, it’s not unheard of. Most churches will have some sort of service this Sunday. I’ve been kidding our churches that we will be “open for business” at the regular times.

It will also give all of us a great opportunity to witness the difference between the holidays that will continue until after New Year’s Day and the reason that should be the central focus of Christians. I believe that we should follow the Biblical mandate: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17)

Christmas is a great season and I enjoy much of it. Obviously, I think there are aspects that are completely out of control. It’s has become like that small snowball that begins at the top of the mountain. As it rolls downhill, it gathers momentum and mass and, by the time it reaches the bottom of the mountain, it is no longer the small and recognizable little snowball, but instead an uncontrollable force.

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That idea came to mind the other day as I was visiting with a family member. We were talking about how commercial the Christmas holiday had become and she asked me if I knew when the tradition of Santa Claus had originated in our country. I had not thought about it.

She said 1823 and that she had determined that, not by some computer search, because she doesn’t have one. Instead, she had turned back the clock to BC and read about it in her World Book Encyclopedia set. BC, to her did not mean “Before Christ,” but “Before Computers.”

Her comment about her set of the World Book Encyclopedia made me think of those days in high school when we read from the Compton’s version of the encyclopedia, but that’s a story for another day. Back to 1823 and Santa Claus.

I found that 1823 was used by most as the beginning of the Santa Claus tradition in this country, because that was the year that a very famous poem by Clement Clark Moore was published. Don’t remember Clement Clark Moore? Well, how about his poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas?”

In that famous poem, we hear for the first time in detail about this character by the name of Saint Nicholas, who would later be better known as Santa Claus. His fur suit was not mentioned as red, but I know it was. He was unmistakably plump because his belly shook like a bowl full of jelly. There was a white beard and a jolly demeanor. It had to be Santa Claus.

Also, in the poem, there were stockings hung by the chimney with care, children all nestled in bed just waiting with great anticipation. For the first time, a sleigh was mentioned and reindeer with names like Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. And let’s not forget the sack full of toys.

There are so many of our Christmas traditions tied up in that little, famous poem. It’s easy to configure that our Christmas celebrations have their origins in that 1823 publication.

I have enjoyed that poem for as long as I can remember, but I have to admit that our current Christmas celebrations are no longer as simple or short as that one visit from Saint Nick. The holiday season has now been pushed back into October, it seems, and has engulfed Thanksgiving with its Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s crammed full of musical programs, shopping excursions, and more things to do than days to do them.

When I was visiting with my friend, there was lamentation about the runaway commercialism of Christmas and its focus on Santa Claus and all those things we give and get. When one thinks about it, the real meaning of Christmas can be defined in simply what we have received.

I think it is best expressed in one verse in the Gospel of John. There is irony that the real Christmas story is found in that Gospel. John has no mention of Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem, a babe in a manger, or shepherds watching o’er their flocks by night. But it does have the greatest verse of all as it describes the intentions of God for our Christmas.

The verse is found in the first chapter and speaks of a phrase expressed in two words, “The Word.” The Word is symbolic of God’s speaking, God’s wisdom, His reason and order, His logic. John says that in the beginning all of those were present.

Then, in the 14th verse of that first chapter of the Gospel of John, the writer turns the world upside down with a radical statement. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The very essence of God, all that He is, came down and made His home among us. And why would He do such a thing as that? “For God so loved the world.”

I love Christmas and all its trappings. Sometimes, they get to be a little much, but I can either take that or leave it. The real Christmas meaning, though, is something I relish with all my heart, mind, body, and soul. I hope you do also and, as Clement Moore said way back in 1823, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”