[Spoiler alert – Do not let your children who believe in Santa Claus read this post. I know my posts appeal heavily to ages 0-10]
Like many American traditions, the legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to Dutch roots. Santa’s name comes from the Dutch word Sinterklaas, or Sint Klaes. The European-originated Santa Claus is somewhat of a mixture of medieval Christian and Germanic traditions. The Germanic people had adopted many Nordic traditions including one which held that the god Odin, also known as “the wanderer,” landed on top of homes during the winter “Yule-time” and brought gifts down the chimney for children who left food for him in their shoes.
Christians, however, had been exchanging gifts in the month of December long before the emergence of Sint Klaes. As early as the fifth century, Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus, or “Christ’s mass,” by giving gifts to others. The origin of this practice goes back to the fourth century AD – to a Greek bishop known as Nikolaos of Myra – known to us St. Nicholas of Myra (AD 270-343).
(SEE THE VERY BOTTOM OF THIS POST FOR A SKETCH OF WHAT THE REAL SAINT NICK MIGHT HAVE LOOKED LIKE)
As you will read below, Nicholas was a generous gift-giver even as a young man. He constantly looked for ways to bless those in need with the wealth he had inherited. Because the city of Myra was a major port city, Nicholas had the opportunity to travel to many places around the Mediterranean. As stories of his generosity were told (and embellished) among sailors and the people in places where he traveled, his celebrity as the Christian gift-giver who went around the world spread rapidly.
St. Nicholas is still celebrated as the patron saint of children, the patron saint of maritime voyagers, and the patron saint of thieves (for he protected thieves, both wrongfully and rightfully accused, from the death penalty). His feast day is celebrated on December 6th, which was the date of his death. As a result, for centuries Christians exchanged gifts on December 6th.
During the German Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther felt that the traditions associated with St. Nicholas had resulted in a weakening of the worship Christ. He replaced the gift-giving celebrations associated with St. Nicholas with the honoring of the Christkind, or the Christ-child. The exchanging of gifts among Protestants was moved from December 6th to December 24th. The arrival of the Christkind, from which our English name Kris Kringle developed, was moved to the middle of the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
THE FIRST ST. NICHOLAS STORY
When both his parents had died, Nicholas began to think about ways he might distribute his riches; not to receive praise from the world but to the honor and glory of God. And it came about that one of his neighbors was a nobleman who had three daughters, all of whom were virgins. As a family they were very poor and without opportunity. Nicholas was gravely concerned to hear that the father was considering prostitution for his daughters, so that the family might be at least sustained even if by immorality. Nicholas was horrified by such villainy. One night, he wrapped a mass of gold in a cloth and tossed it secretly into the house of his neighbor. When the nobleman arose the next morning, he found the gold and gave great thanks to God. He used the gold to provide the dowry needed for his eldest daughter to be married.
Sometime later the nobleman found another mass of gold which had been tossed into the house by the holy servant Nicholas. After thanking God, the nobleman decided to stay awake so that he might know the face of the person who had helped him in his poverty. A few days later, Nicholas doubled the amount of gold he intended to give the man and came by night to toss it into the house once again. The nobleman, stirred by the sound of the gold being cast into the house, followed Nicholas. Nicholas fled from his neighbor as the nobleman said to him, ‘Sir, please do not run away so that I might see you and know you.’ As the man chased Nicholas with greater haste, he caught up to him recognized the great saint. The man immediately knelt down as if to kiss Nicholas’ feet, but the holy man would not allow him. Instead, he required of him only to tell no one nor to reveal Nicholas’ generosity as long as the nobleman lived.
From Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend, vol. 2, first complied AD 1275 (my modernized translation)
MERRY CHRISTMAS from the Costanzo family!
MORE ABOUT SAINT NICHOLAS OF MYRA
Nicholas was born around AD 270 in the town of Patara of Lycia, which is the southern part of modern day Turkey. Nicholas was born into a wealthy family and both of his parents were committed Christians. His family was heavily involved in the church and Nicholas participated in several church orders as a young man. His parents died of a serious illness during his adolescence which left Nicholas set to inherit a large sum of money.
As a result of his pious devotion to Christ, Nicholas decided he would use his new-found wealth to bless others. He immediately set out to find people in his community, and later around the world, who might be blessed by his generosity. The most well-known of these stories is the one quoted above, and it appears to be the first of his covert benevolent escapades.
Other ancient stories of St. Nicholas recount his efforts to give money, food, and support to poor families, hungry farmers, endangered sailors, and victims of thievery and violence. Nicholas traveled the known world on several maritime voyages while maintaining his reputation for generosity in every place he went.
At the beginning of the fourth century, Nicholas had gained significant popularity among the people of Myra and and he was chosen to fill the open position of bishop. It is believed that Christianity came to Myra first through the Apostle Paul, who is mentioned in Acts as having utilized the port city twice (Acts 21:1; 27:5). To ascend to the position of bishop in such a city was a high honor.
In the early part of his tenure as bishop, Nicholas and many of his parishioners suffered severe persecutions at the hands of Diocletian (reigned AD 284-305). Greek historians recount how Nicholas “was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with other Christians.” This persecution would come an end, however, under the reign of Constantine I.
Nicholas is also credited as having participated in the council of Nicea, during which he added his voice with those who spoke against Arianism. (See my previous post on Athanasius and the Council of Nicea). Some biographers also claim that Nicholas was involved in the destruction pagan temples and shrines, including one of significance that was built to honor the Greek goddess Artemis, whose followers persecuted the Apostle Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19). His benevolent deeds and advocacy on behalf of the less-fortunate continued throughout his tenure as bishop until his death on December 6, 343.
DID SAINT NICHOLAS LOOK LIKE SANTA CLAUS?
The St. Nicholas Center is a simple and reliable source for the most widely held traditions concerning St. Nicholas. View it here: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/home/. This picture below is their best work at developing a facial composite of what St. Nicholas might have looked like: