While any child can tell you about Santa – red suit and white beard, delivering gifts by flying reindeer – how much do you know about the real Saint Nicholas?
Is Santa real? Well, no, if by “Santa” you mean a rosy-cheeked bearded man who travels by sleigh and sneaks into every home in the world in one night to drop off gifts. However, the lore of Santa has its basis in history, and knowing about Saint Nicholas can be really helpful for people (Christian parents, especially) as they think about how to approach Santa in their own traditions.
So who was Saint Nicholas? In 270 AD, in the village of Patara, on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey, Nicholas was born to wealthy, devoutly Christian parents. They taught him to revere and obey the teachings of Jesus. While still young, Nicholas lost his parents to an epidemic and received his inheritance — an inheritance that he spent living out Jesus’s command to “sell what you have and give to the poor.” (Matt 19:21) Nicholas was appointed Bishop of Myra (also located in modern-day Turkey), and his reputation for being generous spread. He became known for his concern and generosity toward the needy, and also for his love of children. Then under Diocletian, one of the most ruthless of the Roman emperors, Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned for his faith.
After his release he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, where he vehemently argued for a trinitarian doctrine of the relationship between the Father and Son. So passionately did he defend the doctrine of the Trinity that he slapped (some say punched) Arius for denying the divinity of the Son.
Almost twenty years later in 343, Bishop Nicholas died.
Now the day of his death, December 6, is celebrated around the world as St. Nicholas Day — a day of remembering the generous saint by giving gifts and feasting. Over the centuries, many stories of Nicholas’s helping the needy have been passed down. One such story is about a poor father of three daughters who had no dowry (payment for marriage) to offer potential husbands. With nothing to offer, the daughters would likely be sold into slavery. Three different times a bag of gold appeared at the home, tossed through the window. Legend has the bags of gold landing in shoes set before the fire to dry.
Sound familiar? Gifts left by an anonymous giver, placed in stockings by the fireplace?
Christian (parents especially!), don’t waste this opportunity to point your traditions back to Jesus. Tell your children about the real Saint Nicholas! Let his example help you teach about Jesus’s commands to care for the poor and needy. As you open presents this year, be reminded of Nicholas and his generous gift-giving. Most importantly, be reminded of Nicholas’s faith in Jesus, the divine Son of God, the greatest gift ever given to the world!
Steve Adler is Associate Pastor at Crossing Community Church in Newtown, PA.