With Thanksgiving over, the Christmas season is well on its way. Salvation Army bells ring at the entrances of Walmarts all across the country. Cries of low prices echo around every corner. But the main sign of Christmas is images of reindeer and a chubby white bearded man in red pushing every product imaginable.
As traditions usually stem from actual events, where did Santa Claus come from? Why did he start giving gifts? It goes all the way back to the 4th century.
Emperor Constantine called together a council of Christian leaders in 325 AD. His wanted them to compose a formal united doctrine within the church. The meeting took place in Nicaea.
At the time, a priest named Arius claimed Christ was created and not equal to God. Arianism flatly denied Christ’s presence during creation. In doing so, they rejected the triune God, or Trinity. Despite the inconsistency with the Bible, his beliefs gained followers and supporters.
Arius addressed the council at Nicaea with his new teaching. As he made his argument, the Bishop of Myra quickly put Arius in his place. The Bishop simply quoted one line of scripture:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1
In addition, the Bishop of Myra walked up to Arius and punched him. This Bishop is best known as Jolly O’ Saint Nick.
Nicholas and the other church leaders strongly defended the faith. They were horribly offended by Arius’ break from the teachings of the Bible. After rejecting Arius and his false doctrine, they continued their mission. Their efforts produced the Nicene Creed, or statement of faith, still recited in churches today. Addressing Arius’ inaccuracies, the creed clearly defines the three entities of the triune God as being separate but equal and existing from the beginning.
St Methodius described Nicholas’ strong protection of his faith:
“Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.”
This is the true Santa Claus. He was not a marketing gimmick to turn our attention away from Christ and his birth. Rather, a defender of the true meaning of Christmas. A voice in the wilderness calling people back to God.
Nicholas was born to a wealthy couple less than 300 years after Christ. They lived in the ancient city of Patara, located in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas became an orphan when an epidemic took his parents. His Uncle Nicholas, the Bishop of Patara, raised him in the church.
Nicholas traveled to the Holy Land as a teenager. Experiencing where Jesus lived, died and rose again affected him greatly. On his return trip by sea, a violent storm arose, jeopardizing the ship and passengers. Nicholas prayed for protection and the sea calmed. The ship and all on board were spared. As a result, Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and voyagers upon being sainted.
Nicholas felt called to the ministry by God. He rose to bishop in the city of Myra, also in modern-day Turkey.
In 303 AD, Roman Emperor Diocletian persecuted followers of Christ. He ordered all Christians captured and tortured before throwing them in jail. Nicholas soon found himself imprisoned for his beliefs. Even after several beatings, his faith never faltered. In addition, he even defended other prisoners unjustly charged, strengthening to his legacy of humanity and justice.
Relief came when Emperor Constantine assumed power in 306 AD. He was the first Roman Emperor to accept and spread Christianity. He ordered the release of all Christian prisoners, including Nicholas, who returned to Myra.
Nicholas, an only son, inherited his parents’ wealth after their death. An ardent follower of Christ, he bought gifts, food and other items for the poor and needy with his money.
One story of Nicholas’ compassion involves a poor widower and his three daughters. The widower could not afford a proper dowry for even one of his girls. At the time, unwed young femals often became slaves. Nicholas secretly gave the man money for each daughter. Some say he tossed a bag of gold through a window while others believe he dropped it down the chimney. Regardless, the bag landed in a stocking hanging from the mantel, expanding St Nick’s legend.
The father eventually learned Nicholas gave the anonymous dowries and wanted to thank him. Nicholas simply replied, “Don’t thank me, thank God alone.”
Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD. He was sainted, with his feast day on December 6th, known as St Nicholas Day. In the 5th century, nuns continued his tradition of anonymously helping the poor. In remembrance of him, they left food and clothes at the homes of the needy during his night.
The predominance of saints sharply decreased after the Reformation. Nevertheless, St Nicholas’ legend continued to grow, taking on variations throughout the world. For example, he is known as “Sinterklaas” in Holland. Germans, Swiss, and Dutch leave shoes and stockings outside the door hoping for candy and treats from St Nicholas. However, naughty boys and girls wake to a lump of coal.
Eventually, immigrants brought the tradition of St Nicholas to America. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1820 poem “An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas,” forever changed the legend. St Nick became a heavy, jolly man who flies through the air with eight reindeer and slides down chimneys. Cartoonist Thomas Nast finished Santa Clause’s transformation in 1881 with a red suit with white fur trim.
Most legends stem from some degree of authenticity. Actual events are embellished and fantasized with variations in each story. Regardless, the most remarkable element remains the grain of truth that exists in the tale.
St Nicholas was an incredibly faithful, God-fearing man. He quite literally fought for the Gospel. Even under torture and imprisonment, he refused to deny his Lord and Savior. He obeyed Christ’s commandment to love his neighbor and used his good fortune to benefit the needy. His legacy remains a map for each new generation that constantly points them to Jesus.
So yes, America, there is a Santa Claus. He was an amazing follower of Christ. Therefore, don’t get distracted by the modern understanding of the jolly old man who gives you presents on Christmas. Instead, focus on the bishop who risked his life and spent his family fortune professing and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is the Santa Claus we should remember. This is the Santa Claus we should emulate.
But that’s just my 2 cents.