Born: between AD 260 and 280
Died: 6 December AD 345 or 352
Feast Day: December 6th
Patronage: Children, mariners, merchants, bakers, travellers, scholars, orphans, labourers, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, and pawnbrokers, as well as Greece, Russia, many cities in Italy, Germany, Austria and Belgium
Even if you didn’t grow up in a family that celebrated Saint Nicholas Day, chances are you’ve heard of this much-loved saint from the 3rd century. Revered in both the Greek and Latin (Roman) Churches, he seems to have almost universal appeal. Countless cities, countries, and regions, have chosen Saint Nicholas as their patron, and even groups as diverse as bakers and pawnbrokers have been known to call upon his intercession.
But what about his modern-day, North American counterpart, Santa Claus? Is there really any connection? A look into the history surrounding the saint tells us that he was, in fact, kind and generous. He loved children, and as bishop, he may have even worn a little red suit. Most everything else we can chalk up to the imagination of poets and writers from the early decades of the 19th century. As one writer suggested, “His historical journey is even longer and more fantastic than his annual, one-night circumnavigation of the globe.”1
Must be St. Nick…
The real Saint Nicholas was born in a small Greek village on the coast of the Mediterranean, the only child of devout Christian parents.2 While he was still a boy Nicholas’ parents died in an epidemic, and he was left in the care of an uncle who was the bishop of Patara at the time. Young Nicholas was very pious and wanted to use his considerable inheritance to help the needy, the sick, and the suffering. Under the tutelage of his uncle, he grew to love his faith and determined to dedicate his life to God. By some accounts, he was chosen as bishop of Myra while still a young man, perhaps even before being ordained a priest.
Bishop Nicholas was known as a protector of children and demonstrated great generosity to both friends and strangers alike. For instance, when he heard about a man from Patara who had lost all his money and was unable to provide for his three daughters, the good bishop quietly came to their aid. As the story goes, he dropped small bags of gold through an open window –- which then landed in the girls’ stockings that were drying by the fire. The gold was enough to provide for the girls’ dowries, which saved them from a life of slavery or prostitution.3
Naughty or nice?
But don’t think Nicholas was a softy – merely the jolly, good elf we’ve made him out to be. Historians are fairly certain that, like many Christians of his day, he suffered severely under the reign of Diocletian. It was a time when “Bibles were put to the torch and priests were made to renounce Christianity or face execution.”4 As “a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine,” the saint was likely imprisoned and/or exiled for his faith.5
Of the many stories surrounding the life of Saint Nicholas, it’s difficult to know which are true and which are just that – stories. We can imagine that at least some are founded in truth, having been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. If nothing else, the sheer number of altars and churches dedicated to his memory – over 400 in England alone – say something about him. They attest not only to his popularity, but also to his holiness, the authenticity with which he lived his life.6
Indeed, countless miracles have been attributed to his intercession: from sailors making it safely through deadly storms to incredible accounts of prisoners who had been wrongly condemned to death going free. But perhaps the most amazing phenomenon associated with Saint Nicholas – the one which helped spread his fame far and wide – is the presence of an oily substance that appeared in his grave shortly after his death. This so-called manna has incredible healing powers and continues to emanate from his relics even today.7
Santa’s Greatest Secret
So, what does all this have to do with Santa Claus? I remember when I was around 10 years old and discovered the ‘truth’ about him. Naturally I felt a bit betrayed. So when I married and had my own children years later, I wasn’t sure what to do. If my husband and I went along and just kept up the story of Santa Claus, would we be lying to our children? And more importantly, would they think the stories about Jesus were also part of some legend or myth? In my mind, Santa Claus ranked right up there with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy: just a modern invention that required me to buy more gifts and candy for my kids. But the alternative was to be one of those Grinch-y parents who spoiled all the fun.
Then, several years ago – when we were on ‘round 2’ of our growing family – I read an excellent letter written by a young mother to her daughter.8 In it she explains simply, but beautifully, who Santa is and why he’s important to the world. I’m not sure about the little girl, but it sure convinced me. Here’s what she said:
Thank you for your letter. You asked a very good question: “Are you Santa?” I know you’ve wanted the answer to this question for a long time, and I’ve had to give it careful thought to know just what to say.
The answer is no. I am not Santa. There is no one Santa.
I am the person who fills your stockings with presents, though. I also choose and wrap the presents under the tree, the same way my mom did for me, and the same way her mom did for her. (And yes, Daddy helps, too.)
I imagine you will someday do this for your children, and I know you will love seeing them run down the stairs on Christmas morning. You will love seeing them sit under the tree, their small faces lit with Christmas lights.
This won’t make you Santa, though.
Santa is bigger than any one person, and his work has gone on longer than any of us have lived. What he does is simple, but it is powerful. He teaches children how to believe in something they can’t see or touch. It’s a big job, and it’s an important one.
Throughout your life, you will need this capacity to believe in yourself, in your friends, in your talents, and in your family. You’ll also need to believe in things you can’t measure or even hold in your hand. I am talking about love, that great power that will light your life from the inside out, even during its darkest, coldest moments.
Santa is a teacher, and I have been his student. And now you know the secret of how he gets down all those chimneys on Christmas Eve: he has help from all the people whose hearts he’s filled with joy. With full hearts, people like Daddy and me take our turns helping Santa do a job that would otherwise be impossible.
So, no. I am not Santa. Santa is love and magic and hope and happiness. I’m on his team, and now you are, too.
I love you and I always will.
This explanation really resonated with me. It helped explain why we do the things we do – the intention behind our actions. For at the heart of it, Christmas is about love – the kind of love that brings hope and awe and wonder to an increasingly cynical and jaded world. Like the saint who inspired his image, Santa Claus helps us show our love and care for our children in a very tangible way. And it’s not all one-sided. Through the eyes of our children, we also rediscover the beauty and awe and wonder that life has to offer.
The young mother’s words contain a deep spiritual truth that is often overlooked: what animates us is the Spirit, something we can’t see or touch but is just as real. Thus, what gives Santa ‘life’ is the spirit of love and generosity of parents all over the world. From there, it’s not too big of a leap to see God’s hand at work, His animating Spirit alive in each of us.
I used to feel bad for Saint Nicholas – that his modern day image had been distorted and over-commercialized, and that we know nothing of the real man. But if the young mother’s words are true, maybe it’s not all lost. If the legacy of St. Nick somehow leaves us with “faith in things unseen,” then perhaps believing in Santa Claus isn’t such a bad idea after all.9
– Kelley Holy
1 Brian Handwerk, “St. Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus,” National Geographic, 20 December 2013; available from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas/; Internet; accessed 29 November 2015.
2 “Who is St. Nicholas?” St. Nicholas Center [website]; available from
http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/; Internet; accessed 30 November 2015.
4 Brian Handwerk, “St. Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus.”
6 Cf. “St. Nicholas,” Catholic Online [website]; available from http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=371; Internet; accessed 28 November 2015.
7 “Who is St. Nicholas?” St. Nicholas Center [website].
8 Martha Brockenbrough, “The Truth About Santa,” Cozi [blog]; available from http://www.cozi.com/live-simply/truth-about-santa; Internet; accessed 28 November 2015.
9 Cf. Hebrews 11:1