From Figures of Faith: LDS church public affairs member talks about Santa, ‘Merry Xmas’ and other symbols

Stock image, St. George News

FEATURE — For the “From Figures of Faith” series, St. George News reached out to the Interfaith Council of St. George and asked if they had a message about the holiday season they would like to share with our readers.

The following was submitted by Tim Martin from the public affairs council of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In Samoan Merry Christmas is La Maunia Le Kilisimasi Ma Le Tausaga Fou.  In the Philippines it is Malagayang Pasco.  Christmas in every language is a wonderful sound!

At this time of year, the whole world celebrates Christmas with lights, trees, bells, stars, nativity displays, house and street decorations and even Santa Claus.

Where did Santa Claus come from…this symbol of Christmas?

Saint Nicholas is one of American contribution to the Christmas season. St. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, Lycia (Asia Minor), now part of Russia, in the early fourth century. He was a man of wealth who used his money to do good deeds but swore those whom he aided to secrecy. He especially protected and befriended students and provided the dowries for daughters of impoverished parents, that they might marry to their best advantage.

He became a saint through popular acclaim and was adopted throughout Europe as the patron saint of boys, girls, students, young ladies seeking suitable marriages, bankers, pawnbrokers and sailors. So great was his popularity that at one time he was probably revered more than any other saint, with the exceptions of Peter and Mary. His day, in accordance with the Calendar of Saints commemorated by masses in the Roman Catholic Church, is celebrated Dec. 6.

During the days when Spain ruled Belgium and Holland, St. Nicholas was adopted as the patron saint of children. Legend soon had him make an annual visit from Spain to the Netherlands, where he rode through the streets, followed by Black Pete, his slave, on the evening of Dec. 5.

Children, upon retiring, left hay and carrots in their wooden shoes for his horse to eat while he left gifts for them. His coming was distinctly a children’s treat – grownups were excluded from his beneficences. It was the time when children acquired the toys and games to keep them entertained during the winter days when they were forced to play indoors.

But when the Protestant Reformation swept the Netherlands in the 16th century (1000 years after St Nicolas was famous), the people stormed the Catholic churches, smashing statues and smashing stained glass windows and destroying or plastering over the mural paintings, which they viewed as idolatrous. St. Nicholas, however, was so much a part of childhood joy that he alone of all the saints was allowed to remain, and in the traditions continued to wear the regalia of the ancient bishop and make his annual mysterious visits.

When the Dutch settled New York and the Hudson River Valley, they brought Saint Nicolas with them to the American colonies. The British disliked the Dutch and over time made some changes to Saint Nicolas:

  • His homeland was changed from Spain to the North Pole.
  • A horse, being unsuited for the snowy north, was exchanged for a sleigh and eight reindeer, the names of which show a combination of English, Dutch and German influences.
  • His bishop’s clothing likewise underwent a transformation, with the bishop’s miter being elongated into a stocking cap, the cloak shortened into a coat, stripped of its gold braid, and ermine substituted for it. A pair of trousers was the essential complement of the coat.
  • Boots were substituted for the sandals, and a wide black belt, so common on the clothing of gentlemen of the day, drew the coat tightly about him.
  • The dignified formality of his Dutch name, “Sint Nicolaas,” was corrupted in the speech of children and parents alike into the more easily syllabicated “Sinter Klaas.” The dropping of the “r,” which became customary on the Atlantic seaboard, soon led to “Sinta Klaas,” which was anglicized into “Santa Claus.”
  • Second, to get away from the Calendar of Saints and its implications, his gift giving was identified with the gift of the Christ-child, and his visit was timed for the eve of the traditional birthday of Christ.

Thus, in America, Saint Nicholas was transformed from the Catholic bishop of legend into the jolly, fat Santa Claus we know today and superimposed on the Christmas observance. His popularity was so great among both children and adults that returning colonial officials carried news of the reconstructed saint back to England. Soon he was exported to England, and from there his fame spread throughout the empire, where he is now popularly known as “Father Christmas.”

Is it OK to use “Merry X-mas”?

“Merry X-Mas” used to be an irritant to me. I thought it was just an abbreviation or a shortened way to avoid spelling Christmas. Well, not true. There is a basis for the X-mas.

Frequently Christians were forced to worship secretly. Notice that “X” was the first letter in the word that was Greek for Christ. In the fourth century, copies of the scriptures had to be hand written. Commonly used terms were abbreviated using the letter abbreviation. The original four gospels were written in Greek, and so the abbreviation of “X” for Christ remained.

As we celebrate Christmas here in St. George, please think about the significance of the symbols of Christmas:

  • The fact that the evergreen tree antedates Christianity as a symbol of fertility and also of everlasting life does not lessen its appropriateness to be used by Christians.
  • Martin Luther is thought to be the first man to use lights on a Christmas tree. According to tradition, Luther put lights on his tree to represent the glory and the beauty of the stars above Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth. In general, the lights in our homes, in our churches, in our streets and public buildings and on our Temples at Christmas time represent Christ as the light of the world.
  • The giving of gifts on a particular day likewise goes back to early historic time. For instance, a day was set apart in Rome during which time honey was given to one another by the people that life might be sweeter.
  • Star on the top of the tree reminds us of the star in the sky at the time of Jesus birth, used by the wise men to find the Savior. (Matthew 2:1-2: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”)
  • The candy cane is a reminder of the shepherd’s crook used to bring the lambs back into the fold.  The shepherds were the first to know of the birth of Jesus. Luke 2:8-12.
  • The bells were used by the shepherds to signal the sheep it was time to return to the fold,
  • Giving gifts probably dates back to the wise men and the gifts they brought to the baby Jesus. We read in Matthew 2:11: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
  • The wreath is a symbol of never-ending, eternal nature of love and of the Savior, having no beginning and no end.

I love Christmas and the wonderful symbols that remind us of what is truly important at this marvelous season of giving and thanks.  Merry Christmas.

St. George News will continue to add new messages to the “From Figures of Faith” series leading up to Christmas Day. For all faith messages, click here.

Submissions are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

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