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An Analysis of the Theology of Santaism


Santaism, or the worship of the diety known in English-speaking North America as "Santa Claus", is of recent origin. There are striking parallels to established religions, in particular, Christianity, but also Hinduism and Buddhism. The following briefly describes the rise of Santaism, and then details its parallels with and differences from the theologies of established religions.

Santa Claus with Sunkist lemons from Santa Paula, grown and packed by Limoneira Company

Historical Background

Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Byzantine Christian bishop living in what is now south-western Turkey, is the origin of the Santa Claus mythology. His birthplace was Patara, Asia Minor. Nicholas, or more accurately something like Nikolaius, was the bishop of the Roman-ruled but culturally Greek city of Myra. Myra, now called Demre, is a small town 40 km east of Kas, on the western Mediterranean coast of Turkey.

Paul, the evangelist and author of several books of Christian scripture, was an early visitor to Patara and Myra around 53-57 CE. A Christian community was established, meeting in homes or taverns as all such early churches did. A dedicated building was constructed in the 3rd century. Now known as the Church of Saint Nicholas, some of the original structure remains. Myra was important enough in the early church to rate its own bishop by the 4th century, when Nicholas held the post. He supposedly dropped gifts of bags of coins down the chimneys of dowryless girls, allowing them to marry, leading to some of today's legends.

Significant restorations and additions to the church building in 1043 turned it into a basilica. Nicholas had been canonized, and his fame was adequate by 1087 that a raiding party from the Italian city of Bari stole his remains from the church (although they missed a few bones, now on view in the museum in Antalya). Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia, and so Tsar Nicholas I of Russia sponsored significant further restorations and modifications to the church in 1862. Today the Turks refer to Nicholas as Noel Baba, a mixture of French and Turkish meaning "Father Christmas", a term used for "Santa Claus" in England, where Santaism is much less prevalent than in North America.

The Origins of Santaism as a Religion

Until the early 1800's, there were undoubtedly some mythic elements to the story of Saint Nicholas of Myra. But this was usual during the Middle Ages in western Europe, no more than the typical veneration of saints. Witness, for instance, the pillaging of his relics. All this was to change, starting in 1823, and accelerating in the late 1900's.

Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) was a biblical scholar who graduated from Columbia University in New York in 1798, and compiled a Greek and Hebrew lexicon in 1809. Ironically, he is best remembered for his 1823 poem, "Visit from Saint Nicholas" (starting "Twas the night before Christmas"). This is possibly this work had the greatest single effect at drastically altering the religious elements of the Christmas holiday as it is observed in North America. The second major influence is Gene Autry's song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and the claymation animated film based on it. Between the poem, the song, and the film, an entire complex mythology has been built up around "Santa Claus", retaining no connection to the original man (other than the part about gifts and chimneys). This mythology has been vigorously applied to the holiday of Christmas (to which Nicholas had no special connection) in a way that has significantly altered the religious observance of the holiday.

Taking the mythos as a whole -- the three works referenced, plus subsequent works that might be considered as apocryphal writings -- we have all the characteristics of a religion. Its central figure is a supernatural being that is immortal; has powers of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence; that sits in judgement of all other beings; and to whom supplication may be directed.

It must be stressed that Santaism in no way removes the religious nature of Christmas, it replaces Christianity with Santaism. When Santaism completely replaces Christianity in the lives of its adherents, the name of the holiday is suddenly rather irrelevant. Since "Christmas" is an uncomfortable reminder of the real origin of the holiday, and since "Santamas" can sound suspiciously close to "Saint Thomas", the name of both an apostle and a prominent theologian of Christianity, the term "Xmas" has been devised. Ill-informed people claim that "Xmas" is a completely non-religious term for the early winter holiday. But this overlooks the well-developed theology of Santaism, explored below. Xmas is a religious holiday, just one that radically differs from Christmas.

Santaism and its Parallels With Christianity

While Santaism would replace Christianity in that faith's second-most important holiday, that does not mean that it is not without its significant parallels. One could take the Joseph Campbell approach, seeing the parallels as indication of both faiths' reflections of common underlying truths. His "Masks of God" series is highly recommended reading, at least the first three volumes — "Primitive Mythology", "Oriental Mythology", and "Occidental Mythology" — the fourth seems mostly an indulgence of his enthusiasm for medieval French epic. Or one could take the X-Files approach, seeing the parallels as evidence of an intentional plan, a conspiracy if you will, to make Santaism palatable to adherents of Christianity by providing familiar elements.

The early years of the Christian faith saw its spread into regions under Roman rule but predominantly Greek in culture, particularly today's Turkey and Greece. Early debates over doctrine were perhaps driven by the philosophical traditions of the Greeks, and early church councils wrangled over concepts like the precise nature of Christ. The Council of Nicaea in 325 CE produced the Nicaean Creed, whose structure and complexity reveals some of the debates of the early church. See "The Early Church", Henry Chadwick, 1993 (Penguin), for details on these early debates and councils to resolve them.

The Council of Nicaea, and the resulting creed, formalized the Christian church's model of the Trinity. There is but one God, who can be seen as having three aspects, or persons (the word "persons" being unfortunately dated terminology that makes some wrongly think that Trinitarianism is some form of polytheism):
• Father (creator)
• Son (savior)
• Holy Sprit (motivater or inspirer)

Endless debates, escalating to wars, have been waged over the precise nature of those components and their relationship to each other. Again, see "The Early Church" for details on some of the debates.

Now, in the theology of Santaism, there is a single diety. The primary aspect of the diety is known as Santa, who exhibits the three major characteristics of a single god, the Three Big O's:
• Omniscience (knows everything)
• Omnipotence (can do anything)
• Omnipresence (can be everywhere)

Omniscience is the most commonly cited characteristic of Santa Claus. Drawing from the scriptures of Santaism, Santa Claus knows the behavior of everyone, and maintains lists of those who have been naughty and those who have been nice. What's more, this knowledge is used in judgement of individuals. Unlike Christianity, which teaches that there is a single (thus "final") judgement, Santaism has an annual judgement, and thus has a cyclic cosmology perhaps resembling Hinduism more than Christianity. Since this cyclic judgement means that one could be judged "naughty" in one cycle, but later judged "nice", this eventual redemption also has some similarity to the teachings of Buddhism. (See later sections for comparisons of Santaism to Hinduism and Buddhism.)

As for omnipotence, the scriptures and apocryphal writings of Santaism indicate that Santa Claus could produce anything he chose. While he chooses only to produce toys for the good girls and boys, there is no implied limit to his creative powers. This is perhaps reminiscent of one solution to the Christian Zen-like puzzle "Could God make a rock so big he couldn't lift it?", namely, "Yes, but he chooses not to."

Finally, as for omnipresence, again the scriptures of Santaism credit its deity with the ability to be everywhere at once (or at least to be everywhere within one 24 hour period, which is adequate for most any purpose). Again, just because a deity chooses not to exercise an ability at all times does not mean that the ability does not exist!

We thus find that the person of Santa Claus is Santaism's replacement for the first aspect of the Christian Trinity -- the Father, or the Creator.

As for the second person, the Son, or the Savior, he is not explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament, the earlier part of the Christian scriptures, although he is the focus of the New Testament. Compare that to Rudolph, who is not explicitly mentioned in the Clement Moore poem, the "Old Testament" of Santaism, but who is the primary focus of the Gene Autry song and the film, the "New Testament" of Santaism.

Also consider the passage recorded in the Gospel of John: "Thomas said to him, `Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?' Jesus answered, `I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'." (John 14:5-6, NIV translation). Compare that to the central message of the "New Testament" of Santaism, that Santa can come to no one except through the help of Rudolph, who shows the way where no other can pass.

We thus find that the person of Rudolph is Santaism's replacement for the second aspect of the Christian Trinity -- the Son, or the Savior.

Finally, what of the third aspect of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit? Christians themselves are vague or undecided about the true nature of the Holy Spirit. Points of general agreement are that it represents a less personal aspect of divinity, one whose presence is perhaps best seen through the faith or acts it inspires in individuals. Compare this to the ill-defined "Christmas spirit", which somehow Santa Claus and Rudolph bestow on those they visit, but exactly how this occurs, or exactly what form this "Christmas spirit" takes, is never described.

We thus find that the person of the Christmas Spirit is Santaism's replacement for the third aspect of the Christian Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

The striking parallels can be summarized in a table (and parallels between the angels of Christianity and the elves of Santaism are left as an exercise for the reader):

Aspect of the Deity Christianity Santaism Role
Father God the Father Santa Claus Creator, judge
Son Jesus Christ Rudolph Savior, bridge between people and the Father
Spirit Holy Spirit Christmas Spirit Motivator, inspiration, non-corporeal emanation

While the Joseph Campbell model could be applied to this striking parallel, the X-Files explanation also could be applied, and besides, it's much more fun.

To support the theory that the parallels described above represent the work of a sinister conspiracy, consider that the Council of Ephesus, a.k.a. the Third Ecumenical Council, held in Ephesus, Asia Minor, in 431 CE, primarily dealt with the doctrinal response to the perceived heresy of Nestorianism. However, the work of this council with the most effects seen today were its formalization of the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who apparently had lived in the immediate vicinity of Ephesus after traveling there with the apostle John. Far more obvious in today's Roman Catholic church than in the Protestant churches is Mary's role, and her title as "Mother of God", first used by this early council.

Some experts (See "Testament" by John Romer, 1988, and the television documentary series which it accompanies) feel that this special role for Mary may have been strongly influenced by remaining devotion in the region of Ephesus to an Asian fertility goddess. The Asian goddess had been identified in Ephesus with the huntress goddess called Artemis by the Romans and Diana by the Greeks. However, the diety as locally understood significantly differed from those classical Greek and Roman goddesses. Her local temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and featured prominently in a conflict between goddess worship and Christianity (see Acts 19:23-41). It must be noted that the Christian scripture itself describes the outcome of that conflict as inconclusive, merely reporting an agreement for co-existance of the two faiths. Some historians feel that the prominence of Mary in the council doctrines was intended to win borderline goddess worshipers over to Christianity, by presenting them with aspects of their traditional religion with which they would be familiar, and thus comfortable. Thus the council doctrines would represent, at least to some limited degree, syncreticism, or the merging of foreign beliefs into a theology.

Is it really such a stretch to suspect that the originators and promoters of Santaism, its apostles and evangelists if you will, have intended just such a comfortable parallel in order to win borderline Christians over to Santaism? This is probably a reasonable conclusion, particularly since both Clement Moore and Gene Autry are dead and thus unable to rebut this point.

Santaism and its Parallels With Buddhism

The parallels between Santaism and Buddhism are striking, although far less complex. Good. This is far too long already!

A Buddhist temple contains an image of the diety, often represented as a jolly, obese man. Sound familiar?

Buddhist prayers are generally offered up with incense in the temple, and it is said that the smoke of the incense bears the prayers up to the diety. Compare this to the tradition of Santaism, admittedly less popular today, in which children write their prayers and supplications to the diety in the form of a letter, which is then burned in the fireplace, the smoke bearing the prayer to the diety. These days children offer their prayers to the diety of Santaism via the U.S. Postal Service, which does not really deliver the messages, the apocryphal mythos of the film "Miracle on 34th Street" notwithstanding. Of course, a letter addressed to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, wouldn't be delivered, either -- another parallel!

Buddhism preaches a series of rebirths with an eventual redemption. Santaism preaches an annual judgement, in which one could be judged "naughty" for many cycles, but eventually achieve redemption and be judged "nice".

Finally, a traditional offering in a Buddhist temple is fruit or other food, for the sustenance of the diety. Compare this to the traditional offering in Santaism, milk and cookies for the sustenance of the diety.

To organize these points in the form of another table (as these often lend an air of authority):

Feature of the faith Buddhism Santaism
Physical form of deity Jolly and obese man Jolly and obese man
Prayer Accompanied or carried by smoke Accompanied or carried by smoke
Offering Food (typically fruit or peanuts) Food (typically milk and cookies>
Cyclic judgement and redemption Cyclic rebirth Cyclic judgement
Postal delivery to the deity Not really done Not really done

Santaism and its Parallels With Hinduism

The most striking parallel between Santaism and Hinduism is the cyclic cosmology, exhibited in Santaism as an annual judgement of all beings.

The second most striking parallel between Santaism and Hinduism is their emphasis on pilgrimages to holy places, often (in the case of Hinduism) or always (in the case of Santaism) thought to be abodes of dieties. Just as Hindu festivals and the associated pilgrimages occur at specified times of the year, so does the annual pilgrimage to the avatar of Santa Claus (formerly performed in department stores but now performed mostly in shopping malls) occur at a specified time in Santaism.

Both Santaism and Hinduism use a trinity model of one supreme diety, with Hinduism's trinity being:
• Brahma, the Creator
• Vishnu, the Preserver
• Shiva, the Destroyer

Parallels between this trinity and that of Santaism are more difficult to find. But, for the sake of one more table (and thus the appearance of even more authority), one could propose:

Aspect of the deity Hinduism Santaism
The Creator Brahma Santa Claus
The Preserver Vishnu Rudolph
The Destroyer Shiva The other reindeer who had their own "reindeer games"

Santaism and Judaism

Despite its localized features (North American origin, using elements of northern European mythos), Santa Claus has no chosen people. In fact, that lack of a chosen people is a feature promoted by adherents of Santaism, as their diety is "for everyone". Thus there is no real parallel between Santaism and Judaism.

However, one could observe that the newly invented "Xmas" does threaten to overwhelm Hannukah.

Santaism and Islam

Mohammed did not mention Santa Claus. Thus there is no parallel between Santaism and Islam.

Santaism and Santanaism

Santanaism would be the worship of Latin guitar great Carlos Santana. While he is truly impressive, I don't think that anyone seriously thinks he is any sort of guitar diety. What's more, Santanaism would probably differ radically from traditional religions and would most likely be closest in form to Claptonarianism, another recent development. Personally, I'm Orthodox Knopflerite.


While the above is less than completely serious in places, Santaism is a religion, where the sacrament is commercialism. Our society is threatening to replace Christianity with Santaism. Don't forget the true origin of the holiday celebrated on December 25.

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