“Naughty or nice?”
“Have you been good this year?”
“Will Santa be bringing you all the gifts on your list or will you be getting a lump of coal for Christmas?”
As the holidays near, last-minute shoppers crowd department stores, multi-colored lights merrily twinkle along the houses in the neighborhoods, the gaiety and bright colors of Christmas parade floats fill the streets, and the sweet and spicy smell of gingerbread cookies wafts through kitchens. In the hustle and bustle of it all, adults stop to ask children if they’ve been good this year, and are ready for a visit from Santa.
This iconic character of prodigious proportions who sports a bright red suit, a big white beard, and a jolly smile has, in one way or another, been a fond part of Christmas traditions throughout the western world for centuries. The evolution of the plump philanthropist who sits in the mall next to a lavishly-decorated evergreen tree each Christmas season with lines of children waiting to take their picture with him, is an interesting one.
The story begins over 1,600 years ago.
In the 4th century, a kind bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey) named Nicholas, gave up his inheritance of wealth to minister to the poor and the sick. Legend says he once helped three daughters of a poor man who were in great trouble because they did not have dowries for marriage. Their father was going to sell them into slavery. But one night the bishop dropped a bag of gold down the family’s chimney and it landed in a stocking, which was discovered in the morning. The first daughter had her dowry! This happened twice again on future nights, so that both the second and third daughters received money for their dowries.
They were saved!
For all his kind works he was named a saint, and after his death, legends and tall tales continued to grow about him, while a feast day held on December 6 (the day of his death) was instituted.
And then came the Reformation.
With the Reformation came many changes, not only in the church, but in politics and society as well. Special days commemorating “saints” of the church were in many cases abolished.
So holiday traditions changed with the times, but they never disappeared altogether. There was always someone to deliver the Christmas gifts: In England and parts of Northern Europe it was “Father Christmas,” or “Old Man Christmas.” In France it was “Pere Noel.” In parts of Austria and Germany it was “Christkind,” a baby with wings, symbolizing Jesus. And in the early history of the U.S. it was “Kris Kringle” (from “Christkind”). (See this article for a map of “Father Christmas” and his—or her!—name in every European country.)
When Dutch settlers in the U.S. combined “Kris Kringle” with the legends of St. Nicholas, “Sinterklaas” was born.
A.k.a “Santa Claus.”
Tradition building on tradition, gathering up new bits and pieces as it wound its way along, Santa Claus eventually came to be the jolly holiday icon who makes his home at the North Pole, flying over the houses at night to deliver his gifts in a sled pulled by eight reindeer.
There are many ways in which this symbolic figure embodies the spirit of the season: he is kind, generous, benevolent, and always looking to do good. He brings happiness wherever he goes.
But there’s one major difference between the kindness and generosity of Santa, and the Christ for whom this holiday is celebrated.
Santa comes to give gifts to nice people. Christ came to give Himself for the wicked. Santa blesses the good. Christ blesses the sinner. Santa’s benevolence is based on the merit of the receiver of the gift. Christ’s benevolence is based on the merit of the Giver of the gift.
Christ came to earth as a baby, grew up and fulfilled His ministry, was hung on a cross to die, and then rose again three days later. He didn’t come handing out gifts to “deserving” people; He gives the gift of eternal life to the very undeserving miscreants whose sins nailed Him to the cross. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).
The blessing of the gospel is not for the “righteous.” It’s not for the “good.” In fact, Christ said, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (see Mark 2:17).
When the rich young ruler came to Christ, asking Him what he could do to earn eternal life, Jesus told Him that there is none good but God (see Luke 18:18-27). But the young man thought that he was quite a good person, so he told Jesus he’d kept all the commandments, thinking Christ would commend him.
Jesus then posed a “test” for him in order to reveal the man’s sinful, covetous heart to himself. He had not kept all the commandments as he had foolishly boasted. His love of money took precedence over his love for God, which was in direct violation of the First and Second of the Ten Commandments.
Now the man was confronted with his sin. He had fallen short. He had missed the mark of God’s perfection, just as it says in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Would he now submit himself to the righteousness of Christ, admitting his sinful state and trusting in the goodness of God alone?
No. He turned away from Christ. He was grieved, pricked, convicted. But unrepentant. His lack of faith was clearly evidenced in his lack of obedience. Had he come to Christ already under conviction of his sin, troubled and trembling before a holy God, casting himself on His mercy, would the outcome not have been much different?
That’s always been the trouble, hasn’t it? Man pushes Christ and His righteousness away because he’s already “good enough”—at least “good enough” to “help” God out with his salvation. In fact, like the Pharisees, he believes he can come to God on the basis of his own righteousness. But Christ had to tell them, “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind…If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (see John 9:39-41).
Christ doesn’t find anyone who isn’t lost. He doesn’t heal anyone who isn’t sick. He doesn’t save anyone who doesn’t “need” a Savior. He doesn’t make righteous anyone who is already “righteous.” And since we know that in God’s eyes there is no one who is good—we’re all lost, sick, and unrighteous (see Romans 3)—then only those who recognize their true state and transfer their trust from themselves to Christ can be saved.
The qualification for salvation is that you must be a sinner (and acknowledge it!): the “righteous” need not apply.
You must be lost before you can be found!
* * * * *
With a merry “Ho, ho, ho!,” Santa will be making his gift-giving rounds to good people soon. Meanwhile, Christ stands ready to give the greatest gift—eternal life—to repentant sinners whose very righteousness isn’t worth so much as a lump of coal—nor deserving of anything more.
How about you? Have you received Christ’s righteousness? Do you know the true Gift of Christmas?
Whether your family’s holiday traditions include Santa or not, don’t forget the Gift-giver whose acts of generosity are not contingent on your own goodness.
And Merry Christmas!
–Cliff and Tabitha Alloway