By Valerie Halim
I can still vividly remember the time when my sister and I hopped on a snow sled replica in my Indonesian church two years ago.
At the time, we just finished orchestra rehearsal for the Christmas Eve service and were waiting for our ride home. As we were waiting, our attention immediately drifted towards something that looked out of place.
“Wow, a snow sled!” my sister exclaimed.
Without thinking, we walked towards it and hopped right in. The prop sled was intricately decorated with nicely cut-out styrofoam. Beneath the sled was a sea of cotton snow replica and fake gifts wrapped in red and gold shiny paper.
The question was, what was the sled doing in a Southeast Asian church that does not even experience winter? Moreover, what does a sled have anything to do with Christ’s birth? Since then, I started to wonder if the Indonesian church has confused the original Christmas story and the commercialized version of Christmas.
White Christmas in the Equatorial Church
Apparently, this phenomenon was not unique to the Presbyterian church I go to. When I was scrolling through my Instagram feed during Christmas eve, I noticed that a lot of churches from various denominations have also done the same thing. One of the most obvious examples was my friend’s post of her youth group’s Christmas Eve service.
Unlike my church, my friend’s church was Pentecostal. Nevertheless, they had something in common: letting commercialized Christmas culture enter the church. The church did not even have any decoration or prop related to the Christian nativity story. Instead, the building was mainly decorated with white styrofoam snowflake ornaments and a giant white brick-like styrofoam wall. The giant Christmas tree in the corner was also decorated with white and silver ornaments as if they glittered with snow. In the background of her last photo of the Christmas service, a group of singers was wearing sparkling gold vests and Santa Claus hats.
For people in the Northern hemisphere, it is easy to associate Christmas with snow and winter because the holiday started in the beginning of winter. But for countries that had never seen winter, the association of Christmas with winter looked out of place especially within the church context.
Santa: the icon of Christmas
Conflation of the commercialized tradition and the church Christmas resulted in the media perceiving Santa Claus as a central Christmas figure. Earlier this month, the South China Morning Post published an article about religious intolerance in Indonesia during the Christmas season. Although the article did not talk about Santa Claus, most of their photos involved people wearing his attire.
The first picture showed several people worshipping in a Christmas service with Santa hats as part of their attire. Another photo focused mainly on a child wearing a Santa hat in the middle of the church.
However, the media was not alone in their misunderstanding. In a 2017 article, Reuters reported that hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are planning to do “sweeping” operations during the Christmas season. The sweeping operation aims to stop business owners from forcing Muslim employees to wear Santa hats. FPI believed that this was very necessary because Santa hats are Christmas apparels Christians wear. Because Muslims do not belief Jesus as the incarnation of God, wearing a Christmas apparel would be blasphemous.
Origin of Santa Claus
According to History.com, the legend of Santa Claus started several hundred years ago near modern-day Turkey with a man called St Nicholas. Legends said that he sold all of his wealth to travel around the country and helped the poor and sick. The story of his charitable deeds spread like wildfire throughout the country. Unfortunately, his reputation did not stay for very long after the Protestant reformation, which discouraged the veneration of saints. Nevertheless, the Netherlands still saw him as an admirable legendary figure.
Dutch influence in the Church
In the Netherlands, people called St Nicholas by his Dutch nicknames “Sinter Klaas,” which was short for “Sint Nikolaas.” This name eventually evolved into Santa Claus when Dutch immigrants came to New York in the 18th century. Although there are no written records on how Santa Claus came to Indonesia, it is plausible that the Dutch were responsible. In the 19th century, the Dutch claimed authority over the archipelago and they enforced the Reformed church to do missionary works to further establish Dutch influence. Consequently, the Protestant churches in Indonesia still carried some Dutch traditions with them. Quite possibly even Santa Claus.
However, even if the Dutch were not directly responsible, the Indonesian churches most likely adopted him from their Dutch-influenced American counterparts for whatever reason.
It is time to let him go
Although the story of Santa Claus was based of a bishop from Myra, Turkey, he was never part of the Christmas story. The original Christmas story was the birth of the incarnated Son of God. The Indonesian word for Christmas–Natal–means birth, which alludes to Christ’s birth.
Yes, St Nicholas (AKA Santa Claus) taught us to be generous and help others, but Christmas is not about him. It is about Christ who came to save the world from death. Because the church is the body of Christ and His chosen people, it is not right to let someone else to steal His spotlight.
If Christmas service at church still led others to think that Santa Claus was the face of Christian Christmas, the church should probably question who they are celebrating.
photo courtesy of Reuters