St. Nicholas, Nativities and (Heretical) Carols: Redeeming Christmas Traditions

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Parent, it’s that time of the year when we celebrate the birth of Christ by spending money we don’t have, watching movies about wildly dysfunctional families (I’m looking at you, McCallisters) and singing songs with lyrics that have been largely condemned by the ecumenical creeds. Yes, Christmas is here!

Christmas can be a season of struggle. For some of us, our biggest struggle is not to be consumed by consumerism itself. The reason for the season is Jesus and not all the presents that are bought and sold, right? Others constantly wrestle with the Santa question: “Do we allow our kids to believe in Santa or not?” Once again, many parents rightly want their children to know that Jesus is the reason for the season, not a fictional character who clearly eats too many cookies.

In short, we want to guide our families (specifically our children) to be thankful for the birth of Jesus and not caught up in the cultural pageantry of Christmas. This is a noble, godly desire, but discerning the good and bad, the profitable and unprofitable, is more complicated than simply ignoring Santa and giving away fewer gifts.

Why? Because we indulge in Christmas mythology — and, well, heresy — that makes the two aforementioned battles rather trivial.

St. Nicholas was a real person, with a real love for the downtrodden.

Christmas Heresies and Sugarcoated Falsehoods

For instance, your nativity scene probably shows three wise men, or maybe you sing, “We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts…” While telling our children that Christmas isn’t about gifts, we set up nativity scenes that have three men bringing gifts. What if we told our kids the truth? The Magi were not present at the birth of Jesus. They came later. Also, they weren’t simply generous gift givers; their gifts functioned to declare the kingship of Jesus.

In fact, maybe we should deconstruct the Christmas story altogether. The grizzly reality is that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable because she was refused a place to stay, not because Joseph forgot to use Travelocity and the Holiday Inn was fully booked. Sadly, our attempts to make the Christmas story the heart of the Christmas season usually means a romanticized and partially fictional rendition of the birth narratives.

In fact, it gets even worse when you consider the widespread aversion to Santa Claus. Some of us don’t want our children focusing on a jolly old elf because we want them worshipping the new born king. Be that as it may, the man that Santa Claus is modeled after would likely call most of us heretics for many of the Christmas carols that we sing. (I’ll explain that in a moment.) St. Nicholas was a real person, with a real love for the downtrodden. Traditions hold that the real Nicholas rescued three young girls from prostitution by providing their father with bags of gold to use as their dowry. Of course, these bags were delivered at night, in a sack. (There were no chimneys nor reindeer involved.)

Moreover, Nicholas loved biblical orthodoxy and reportedly made an appearance at the Council of Nicaea to participate in the condemnation of Arianism, a false teaching which asserted that Jesus was a created and “lesser” god. Nicholas supposedly would become violent when heresy was taught. He was not an elf nor was he jolly. However, Nicholas was (as tradition holds) very generous. This is the man behind the Santa Claus mythos. So, while we try to protect our children from the mythos based upon a real man, just know that the historical St. Nick would have a major (and perhaps violent) problem with our Christmas carols.

For instance, the classic song Away in a Manger includes this lyric: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Jesus was fully God and fully man. Therefore, we could safely say that the little Lord Jesus made a lot of crying. This carol smacks of a long condemned heresy called Doceticism (which denies the full humanity of Jesus). If the historical traditions are true, then the original St. Nicholas we have dropped the hammer on such nonsense.

How about The Twelve Days of Christmas? That carol was written as a covert Roman Catholic tool to reinforce Roman Catholic doctrine among children. Should children of the Reformation really be singing it? (And regardless of its doctrinal origin, “ten lords a leaping” is just a weird thing to say.)

Then there’s It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. This tune was written by a Unitarian who went out of his way to avoid mentioning Jesus by name. In short, this carol is the musical equivalent of “happy holidays!”

Here is my point: There is a massive amount of the Christmas season (from both Christian and non-Christian traditions) that simply distracts from the purpose of the holiday: celebrating the king.

Redeeming Christmas

So, how should we respond? By rooting out gift-giving, all references to St. Nicholas and dumping most Christmas carols? Maybe.

Perhaps, though, we could seek to redeem the Christmas season. Rather than eschewing gift-giving, we could teach our children that the gospel tells us salvation is a gift — and that Jesus taking on flesh was the beginning of God’s work to purchase the gift of our salvation. Present the entire gifting process through the lens of the gospel.

What about Santa? Instead of pretending like Kris Kringle doesn’t exist, we could tell our children what we know about the real St. Nicholas. Inform them that he was a man of generosity who loved and valued the gospel. Also, let them know that subsisting on only Christmas cookies and milk will cause long term medical problems.

How about Christmas carols? Well, we should dump some of them. Yet others are superb: Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World, O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel, O’ Come All Ye Faithful and others. Use these doctrinally rich carols to teach your children about the incarnation while not living in fear of the less than profitable songs.

Oh, and what about that nativity scene? We could instruct our children that the nativity set in your home is a visual summary of multiple chapters in the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew, spanning up to two years in time. As you teach them about who was or was not at the birth of Jesus, you can de-romanticize some of the Christmas story for them.

Removing the artistic license we’ve taken need not remove the joy of the holiday season. On the contrary, knowing that Jesus did cry on Christmas night ought to bring us great hope because only God incarnate could redeem us. Help your kids to understand that the cries that rang out the night of Christ’s birth were the normal cries of a human baby, while also being the war cry of the warrior king who’d come to claim what is His!

Christmas is the best. Seriously! However, just like every other season of the year, this season requires discernment. It also necessitates that parents be engaged in the the discipling of their children so that they can help them hold on to what is good and to reject what is unprofitable. In fact, the only way Christmas should be a stress to you as a parent is if you’ve put the discipling of your children on auto-pilot. If you have, use this season with its natural rhythms of spiritual conversations to regain a role in your child’s spiritual development.

This article originally published on Dec. 15, 2017.

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Dayton Hartman

Dayton Hartman is lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He has a PhD in church and dogma history from North-West University (South Africa), and serves as an adjunct professor at both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Columbia International University. He is the author of Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. Learn more at

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