St. Nicholas should be an inspiration to us all. He was a godly man whose reputation for giving to people caused him to be a revered example of what compassion and giving are all about. He was not a jolly fat man who climbed down chimneys, and he didn’t have flying reindeer.
Stories of his life – a life full of Christian beliefs and values – are the real background for today’s mythical Santa Claus. So much of what Nicholas was – and what Santa Claus has become – has been distorted over the years.
The real story of Christmas is the story of Jesus-God’s precious gift to us. Our Heavenly Father is the real Gift-Giver.
Nicholas grew up knowing the real Gift-Giver.Nicholas and his parents lived in Turkey in the third century and were Christians. Nicholas’ parents had prayed and asked God for a child, much as Abraham and Sarah had done. From the time Nicholas was born in about A.D. 280, they considered him a gift from God. Diligently, they taught their young son devotion to God and to be very generous to the poor. Although they both died when Nicholas was in his teens, their heritage of living for God and giving followed Nicholas.
Ordained as a young teenager, Nicholas entered the priesthood at age 19. His uncle, the bishop who ordained him, prophesied that Nicholas would offer guidance and consolation to many people, that he would eventually become a bishop, and that he would live a life of enlightenment. Eventually he did become the bishop of a small, coastal village, and his influence spread into many nations.
Many accounts have been written about the life of Nicholas. It was said that he would spend all night studying God’s Word to bring it to the people. He was known for helping the poor, for praying, fasting and standing steadfast in faith and goodness. Many miracles were brought about through his prayers. Included among the accounts of his ministry is the report of twin brothers who were raised from the dead. It was written that one could hardly keep count of the virtue and goodness he spread around him.
One particular story of Nicholas’ goodness is the reason many pictures show him with three golden spheres. These represent three bags of gold that he gave to a poor man so his three daughters could be married. The man was so poor his daughters had no dowries, and he was so desperate he was planning to sell them into what we would call white slavery.
To keep that from happening, Nicholas threw a bag of gold pieces through the man’s window in the night so no one would know who had done it. He wanted God to get the credit for it. Because of this, the eldest daughter had a dowry. She was no longer an outcast and could be married.
Not long after that, Nicholas did the same thing for the second daughter, saving her from a similar fate. When he did it for the third daughter, the father caught him. Nicholas made the father swear on an oath that he would never reveal who was responsible for those gifts as long as Nicholas was alive.
When Nicholas died on December 6, A.D. 343, he is said to have quoted Psalm 11 with his last breath: “In the Lord I put my trust.”
In the Greek language, the name Nicholas means “victorious” or “hero of the people,” and he did indeed become a very popular figure in the centuries that followed his death. Stories of Nicholas spread throughout Greece and into Russia. He became the popular patron saint of Russians, who called him “Nikolai, the wonderworker.”
In 1087, the remains of St. Nicholas’ grave were transported from Turkey to Bari, Italy, where a basilica was built in his honor. Soon after, his popularity spread throughout Italy and across western Europe. December 6, the day of his death, became St. Nicholas Day on the Roman Catholic calendar, and the custom of gift-giving on December 6 began in France and spread across all of Europe.
You can see similarities between the better characteristics of the Santa Claus character, who gives gifts at night-not to be seen by anyone, and St. Nicholas’ gold-piece throwing. But how did the story of such a man of God get turned into a story of an elf workshop at the North Pole?
With the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, the worshipping of the saints was denounced, and St. Nicholas Day was no longer observed in England.
In Holland and Belgium, the traditional day of December 6 was still celebrated. There, Sinter Klaas rode through the streets on a white horse, rewarding good children with treats and toys and giving rods or switches to bad children. In Germany, the saint was referred to as “Nicholas dressed in fur” and also left sweets for good children and rods for the bad ones.
Christopher Columbus brought the first celebration of St. Nicholas Day to the New World when he landed in the West Indies on December 6, 1492, and named the harbor Port of St. Nicholas, in honor of the patron saint of sailors.
All of these traditions blended with immigration to the New World. As the English and Dutch came and intermarried, Father Christmas and Sinter Klaas blended into one figure. Dutch Americans eventually adopted December 25 as their day of celebration, and by the end of the Civil War, St. Nicholas the bishop was generally known in the United States as Santa Claus.
The poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” further shaped the American Santa. Another popular poem, originally titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” was penned by New York professor Clement Moore in the 1800s and created a word picture portraying a round-bellied Santa with a huge pack on his back. Picking up on this image, cartoonist Thomas Nast added a North Pole toy workshop in his cartoons for Harper’s Weekly magazine. In 1925, a large corporation (whose colours are also Red & White…) ran an advertising campaign of Santa Claus further defining him as a large man with a red and white fur suit, black boots and a long, flowing beard-the closest depiction of our present-day Santa.
The American Santa Claus, like America itself, came from a melting pot of Old World cultures and characters. He is the Dutch Sinter Klaas and the Lutheran Kris Kringle who bring gifts to children. His red garment is lined with fur like the German version of Nicholas, and he spreads merriment and cheer like Father Christmas. And a team of reindeer, borrowed from a Russian legend, accompanies Santa Claus on his journey through the night.
The story of the true St. Nicholas is a beautiful picture of the giving that Christmas is really about-instead of the fretting and getting that the American Santa now represents. St. Nicholas represents the giving heart of our Heavenly Father.