EVERYBODY KNOWS SANTA, the Christ-free saint of stuff. He was turned into a pop culture icon by an Atlanta marketing executive who sold ice-cold bubble brew. The world cherished his product as the liquid form of liberty and opportunity; but only when the temperatures were high. Atlanta’s sales numbers took a deep dive into the toilet as soon as Americans began their seasonal love affair with a miss from Switzerland. Something had to be done. Black sugar water can’t just be America’s favorite drink when the sun shines. No matter the weather, when Americans are thirsty, the Atlanta bubble brew should pop into their minds.
Then he had a ground-shaking idea. Why reinvent the wheel when you can steal one?
A rival soda outfit fought the American desire for hot cocoa in the winter with Saint Nicholas. A guy with a white beard dressed in red who was crazy about their ginger-ale.
Let’s take that guy, shorten his name, make him super jolly and, of course, he doesn’t gulp down ginger ale. Who in his right mind drinks a summer drink like ginger-ale in the winter?
From now on, we call him Santa, and he drinks the quintessential all-American, all-year drink from Atlanta! And so, the greatest marketing success this planet has ever seen was born.
Santa didn’t start his career in a soda factory in Georgia.
The sled-wielding gift bringer entered history as a Christian Bishop. As far as we know, he was born on March 15, in 270 AD, in Asia Minor. He died on Dec. 6, in 343 AD. Nobody knows for sure if these dates are accurate. The earliest written accounts of his adventures emerged centuries after his death.
One of the most famous stories told is that of the poor man who had three daughters. He was too poor to give them a dowry. A dowry is money that the bride brings into a marriage. If you had no dowry, no one would marry you.
In Antiquity, life for poor unmarried women could be very difficult. If she had no male relatives, her fate could very well lead her into prostitution. Saint Nicholas wanted to save the girls.
One night, the saint snuck up to the poor man’s house. Hidden by the velvet darkness, he threw a bag of gold through the window and then he ran away.
The saint is also famous for secretly putting coins into the shoes of poor children. One day he calmed a storm, another day he saved soldiers from being unjustly executed.
One really good day, he resurrected three children who were slaughtered by a butcher. The murderous meat merchant had preserved them in brine and wanted to sell them as pickled pork during a famine.
Pope Eugene IV made him an official saint in 1446. Over time, a tradition developed in Europe, that on the day the saint died, on Dec. 6, secret gifts were given, especially to children.
It was a well-loved tradition until Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517. He slaughtered many Holy Cows and he also messed with Saint Nicholas Day. Luther changed the gift giving to Christmas, Jesus’ birthday. He said the Christ child would bring the presents, not some Roman Catholic saint. He was persistent, loud and most likely obnoxious. Over time, everybody accepted the idea that gifts were given on Christmas.
Many different folk traditions come together in the figure of Santa, Saint Nick, Sinter-class, father Christmas, or however you call the secret gift giver. Its origins in Europe reach back to pre-Christian Yuletide celebrations. Those traditions mingle with stories about the Greek Saint Nicholas. The Christmas icon comes into a form we would recognize in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1920s, the Atlanta bubble water consortium lit the afterburner on the tradition.
Santa took off like a rocket. When his sled zooms around the globe, many people forget that Jesus is the reason for the season. The Atlanta bubble empire did not invent Santa, but the success of their marketing campaign proves you don’t have to be the first to create something truly iconic. Cheers!
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Olaf Baumann, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Port Angeles. www.go2trinity.org, www.olaf-baumann.com.