September 23, 2017

The Real “Santa Claus”

St. Nicholas, Jvanosky

By Chaplain Mike

In this morning’s post, we talked about the difference between Biblical Christianity and the “Disney-ized” version so prevalent in America today. Another example of turning a classic tale into a shallow, sentimentalized version for mass consumption (more in our culture than in the church) is what we have done to the story of St. Nicholas, transforming him into “Santa Claus.”

Today is St. Nicholas Day. This fourth century saint has been venerated for centuries throughout the world for his giving spirit. His care for children and penchant for secret gift giving has brought him great renown. Somehow, the power of modern culture turned him into something quite different. A human saint was replaced by a jolly old elf. A patron of the poor became a judge of who’s naughty and nice. A church bishop became the CEO of the world’s largest toy factory. A man who walked among his parishioners and served the people in his community became a cosmic delivery man who visits everyone everywhere on one night during the year in his magic sleigh. A saint of the church became an icon of popular culture and a vehicle for commercialism. A story rich in human experience became a modern fairy tale we trot out every year to try and put some magic in our children’s eyes during the season.

In modern Christmas celebrations, what to do with “Santa Claus” can pose a dilemma for people of faith. Some object to the silly nature of the fairytale-like stories about him. Others feel he represents a crass materialism we should avoid. Still others protest that too much emphasis on the “jolly old elf” takes away from the true, spiritual meaning of the holiday.

The wide variety of legends about St. Nicholas is the result of a long development of traditions in western civilization. An amazing variety of myths and tales grew up about him for centuries in various places around the world. The sheer number of entities that have honored him for special consideration is staggering. Some call him “nearly everyone’s saint.” The Wikipedia article on St. Nicholas lists some of them:

The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honored by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students in Greece, Belgium, France, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Russia, the Republic of Macedonia, Slovakia, Serbia, and Montenegro. He is also the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Beit Jala, Fribourg, Huguenots, Liverpool, Siggiewi, and Lorraine. In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Santa Claus the patron saint of New Amsterdam, the historical name for New York City. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.

Santa Claus and His Works, Nast

On the other hand, our loosely connected American image of “Santa Claus” is relatively recent.

  • The city of New York, recalling its Dutch roots, made St. Nicholas its patron saint in the early 1800’s. Washington Irving wrote Knickerbocker’s History of New York, a book that has been called the first great imaginative work in the New World. It contained legends about St. Nicholas, including him coming down chimneys to deliver gifts.
  • In 1821, an anonymous book gave the first known mention of “Sante Claus,” who arrived from the north in a sleigh pulled by reindeer on Christmas Eve.
  • The character we recognize — a fat, jolly elf in a red suit who lives at the North Pole and pilots a sleigh filled with presents led by eight reindeer — was immortalized by Clement Moore in his poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, which first appeared in 1823.
  • Thomas Nast, a cartoonist in the 19th century, further solidified our image of Santa with his illustrations.
  • Later commercial Christmas advertisements, such as the ones for Coca-Cola in the early 20th century, reinforced his character in the American imagination.

Understanding more about the true St. Nicholas may be a way to restore some sense of dignity to Christmas and resolve the “Santa Claus” dilemma for Christian people. To be sure, when you start to read about him, it will become clear that many of the stories are legends arising from a spirit of hagiography. Nevertheless, the stories, exaggerated though they may be, emphasize Christian virtues and are consistent in venerating praiseworthy character qualities. I believe we can read and tell them as vehicles of Christian imagination, while recognizing a kernel of truth and a foothold in history.

Nicholas was from Myra, a province of what is now Turkey. St. Nicholas was a real man, dedicated to following God, who gained a reputation for his generosity and kindness. He lived long ago, in the fourth century, born to wealthy parents who raised him as a devout Christian, but who died in a plague when he was young. Tradition says that he took his inheritance and gave it to the poor to pursue a religious life. He was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man, and was known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his special concern for those at sea (it is likely his family owned a shipping company).

One story about him involves a poor man who had three daughters. Because the father could not afford to pay a dowry for them to be married, they were in danger of being taken away and made slaves. On three different occasions, it is said that a bag of gold appeared in each one of the daughter’s stockings or shoes which were by the fire to dry. The gold had been tossed in through an open window by a secret benefactor, St. Nicholas. This led to the tradition of hanging stockings by the fire or, in some countries, putting shoes out in which small gifts are placed, such as candies, coins and other treats.

Many other stories are told of St. Nicholas, some obviously myths and legends, but all of which make some point about the kindness, generosity and helpfulness of this man.

It is said that sailors, claiming St. Nicholas as patron, carried stories of his favor and protection far and wide. St. Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports. As his popularity spread during the Middle Ages, he became a patron throughout many countries and cities of Europe. Following his baptism in Constantinople, Vladimir I of Russia brought St. Nicholas’ stories to his homeland, where Nicholas became the most beloved saint in Russia. More than 2000 churches in Europe bear his name.

St. Nicholas Day is widely celebrated as a feast in Europe on December 6 of each year. Various traditions commemorate his life and generosity and help the faithful remember that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Honoring this saint and teaching our children about the real person behind Santa Claus may help restore some spiritual sanity to our celebration of Christmas.

The best overall site that I have found for further information on St. Nicholas is The St. Nicholas Center.

Here is a prayer we may pray on this feast day for St. Nicholas:

God of joy and cheer,
We thank you for your servant, the good Nicholas.
In loving the poor, he showed us your kindness;
In caring for your children, he revealed your love.
Make us likewise thoughtful and without need of reward,
So that we, too, may be good followers of the Child you gave to the world at Christmas.
Amen.

Comments

  1. Denise Spencer says:

    Thanks for this, Mike. And happy St. Nicholas Day!

  2. I’ve been meaning to look up the real Saint Nick. Thanks!

    Nate

  3. I love learning about the saints. Thanks.

  4. We miss all that he was if we miss that he was also one of the great defenders of the faith. He was one of the bishops present at the First Ecumenical Council.

    He was also one of the confessors of the last great persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, the great persecution of Emperor Diocletian. What is the difference between a confessor and a martyr? The confessor lived; the martyr died. In other words, he was tortured as a follower of Our Lord.

    During his attendance at the First Ecumenical Council, he was one of the defenders of what we all believe about Our Lord against the Arian heresy. There is an interesting story about his attendance at the Council:

    A later writer claimed that after Arius had presented his case against Jesus’ divinity to the Council, Nicholas hit Arius in the face out of indignation. Nicholas was kicked out of the Council for this offense, and jailed as well. However, according to this account, that night the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to many of the bishops of the Council, telling them to forgive Nicholas, for he had done it out of love for her Son. They released Nicholas and allowed him back into the process the next day.

    Whatever you may think about the appearance of the Virgin Mary, there is no historical doubt that he was present at the Council, and no historical doubt that after the Council he kept Myra free of Arianism. He was so beloved that even the Arian Emperor, Constantine II, did not dare to depose him of his episcopal throne, and so Myra was kept free of heresy. I am one of those who delightedly and most un-Christianly choose to believe that Saint Nicholas gave a hearty punch to Arius’ face.

    So, do not think of Saint Nicholas as only a gift giver and one who cared for the poor. He is also remembered as one of the staunchest defenders of what we know say is true about Our Lord Jesus Christ.

    • Thanks, Fr. Ernesto, I was hoping the Orthodox would step up and help a poor Protestant on this one!

      • St. Nicholas is so beloved among the Orthodox, many of them of named after him. See “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for more details 😀

        • Since he is a patron of sailors, many churches in coastal towns and villages were dedicated to him here in Ireland.

          Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of the parish about five miles west of my town which is dedicated to St. Nicholas, as well as the church of St. Nicholas in Galway, which local legend states that Christopher Columbus visited when he came to Galway in 1477 🙂

        • MelissaTheRagamuffin says:

          “Nick, Nick, Nick, Nicky, Nick….”

    • I have a friend (who will recognize himself if he reads this) who would like to have a giant inflatable lawn decoration of St. Nicholas slugging Arius. He feels it would be an antidote to the bobbling monstrosities of Santa on a Harley and their ilk.

      • I’d put one in my yard!

        If we could have him throwing the punch timed to a Trans Siberian Orchestra tune…

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

        Hehe, that’s great! A friend of mine posted as his facebook status for today something to the effect of “Punch an Arian for St. Nicolas Day.”

        • Cedric Klein says:

          I have several Jehovah’s Witness friends whom I have been tempted to ask if that’s why they disdain Christmas- since Santa punched one of their ancient predecessors, but that just always seemed too offensive to me.

    • Is it wrong that I love that St. Nicholas punched a heretic? 🙂

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      He was also one of the confessors of the last great persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, the great persecution of Emperor Diocletian. What is the difference between a confessor and a martyr? The confessor lived; the martyr died. In other words, he was tortured as a follower of Our Lord.

      And as I understand it, the only reason Nicholas lived was that Diocletian either died or was overthrown and the new Emperor pardoned all the prior regime’s political prisoners in a general amnesty.

  5. Козак says:

    Grrr. I am thrilled that you showed a Ukrainian stamp with Saint Mykola on it, but not so thrilled about the reference to “Vladimir I of Russia”. St. VOLODYMYR (Володимир) was the king of Rus’, an eastern Slavic kingdom centered in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. There is intense dispute about the origin of Muscovy/Russia and its connection to the Rus’ state, but calling it Russia is at best an oversimplification.

  6. This is a day we have celebrated in our house since my oldest was very young. It seemed a healthy way to deal with Santa. The early motivation was “first child paranoia” about what our kids would think when they found out Santa wasn’t real, and a desire to keep the focus on Christ at Christmas. It has become a wonderful part of our advent season, and given us another place/story to celebrate Christ as a family.

  7. Thanks, Chaplain Mike, and also Father Ernesto for this bit of history on St. Nicholas. I hope his story encourages us to help others who could use a “leg up” and also encourages us to keep the faith!

  8. MelissaTheRagamuffin says:

    Working with homeless children I’ve come to view teaching children to believe in Santa as not only lying to them, but harmful to their psychies.

    Receiving gifts from Santa is supposed to be contingent on if the child was naughty or nice. What does it to the the psyche of the child who is a good kid, strives to be a good kid, but gets little or nothing because his parents are poor, but then he sees the kid he knows is a complete and total punk getting X-Box and Ipods? And just as importantly, it gives the kid who gets everything he asked for and more the idea that the child who got little or nothing is “bad” instead of just poor, and our society very much does treat the poor and homeless as if they are bad.

    • And here we go…

      I figured this wouldn’t take too long.

      Several things.

      I don’t know anyone who actually “teaches” their kids to beleive in Santa. Not the sit down and drill it into their heads. Yes, using it as a guilt manipulation is bad, and yes there is way way too much consumerism involved, but there is a difference in “letting a kid belive in Santa” the same way he believes he is spider man when he puts on a mask, dont’ laugh, mine actaully used to think he was THE spider man b/c he had spidey pjs, and somehow making them beleive. My experence has been kids are pretty smart and catch on by themselves rather quickly. And when they do it’s over.

      • Austin, then you haven’t met my mother-in-law. Last year, knowing full-well that we don’t “do” Santa, when my daughter asked her if she (grandma) believed in Santa, my MIL said “Yes,” and that he comes to her house every year. And then she had my daughter sit down and write a letter to Santa. When I confronted her about it, her defense was that my husband and I were taking all the magic out of Christmas. As a Christian woman, I asked her why the birth of Jesus wasn’t “magic” enough. She didn’t really have a response to that, but stuck rigidly by her stance. She insisted she would continue to tell our children Santa was real. Fortunately, I got her to agree to at least not say anything, even if she wasn’t willing to deny his existence.

        I want to say, “If a Christian wants to teach their kids about Santa, that’s fine” b/c I’m also thinking “and if I don’t, then that’s fine, too.” The problem is that it’s NOT fine, at least with the other Christians. A Christian who chooses to not teach their children about a fictitious fat man is ridiculed for ruining CHRISTmas. It’s ridiculous.

        I am with you wholeheartedly, MelissaTheRagamuffin. Pop-culture case in point, Clark Griswold’s niece.

        • Erin,

          I agree with you that your mother-in-law was out of line. Have fun with that in years to come:) But also, know that I don’t appreciate it when some snotty “crunch granola” homeschooled spelling bee whiz (sarcasm folks) stranger kid feels obligated to tell mine at Toys R Us that Santa is dead.

          I just wonder where it stops. I mean do you let your kids pretend to do anything? Do you constantly remind your daughter that her favorite Barbie or toy doll or anything like that is not real when you see them playing with them? Do you tell your kids to stop talking to their pets when they hug their cat and say they love them because animals don’t understand language or love and they only repsond to you b/c you feed them and you are no more special to them than anyone else?

          I just dont’ know where you draw the line.

          But I do agree that your mother in law was out of line, and I do admit that right now mine are too young to ask but if they ever asked me point blank if Santa was real I could’t lie to them. But I”m not going to go out of my way to crush a two year old fantasy either.

          • My son has little or no idea who Santa is. He is told that Jesus gives him gifts at this time.

            When asked by his (secular) preschool teacher what Santa brought him, he told her Jesus brought him many wonderful gifts. She was somewhat put off!

          • So Santa is out but it is ok to say that Jesus brought him his gifts under the tree? Although i guess you could indirectly justify that isn’t that trading one fib for another?

          • God gives us all things.

          • I believe you are stretching things to meet your own conclusion. Yes, God does ultimately give us everything that is important. But he did not physically put that transformer under the tree.

            So… if we are being literal then we are swapping one fiction for another.

          • Sure, but it’s not literal. He receives gifts to “celebrate Jesus’ birthday”. It is unlike a usual birthday, in that he receives the gifts.

          • Fair enough… we celebrate that too each Christmas…

      • My youngest still hopes Godzilla is real…

        Santa can be a focal point for secular living and consumerism – if we let it. But when the tradition is put along side the season of advent, a time of preparation, anticipation and joy then it can become a teaching moment.
        the naughty and nice theme is really a reflecting on how strong our relationship with
        God is and how we are treating others. This is broken down into the simplest terms for children, since they are yet at a level to absorb more complex concepts. But that’s our job as parents, to build the foundation and then fill in the why’s and how’s as they get older. Imagination is nothing to be scorned.

        I am a father of a large family and I have yet to see a child who’s psychie is damaged because of their belief in Santa. What I see as more damaging are the parents who, in their newly found relationship with God have an expectation that their children should understand adult concepts and their religious ferver, and abrubtly announce that Santa has left the building. Now that does damage to children’s psychies….

    • Wow, that’s a sad but good point I never thought of.

      When my daughter was getting a gazillion dollars worth of disney princess stuff from Santa, what message was that sending to her friends who didn’t get the same because their parents couldn’t afford it? How did those parents feel? God.

      It is no wonder that Christmas is the saddest time of year for a lot of people. I don’t like it, myself, and one big reason is I saw my single Mom going way too far in debt to buy way too much stuff. To me it means excess, and getting things I don’t need, and giving people things they don’t need, all because the media tells us that’s how we show our love.

      Santa is a lot of fun when you have little kids, though. I just wish he wasn’t so intertwined with conspicuous consumerism.

  9. Not to put a damper on the mirth over St. Nicholas or anything, but many of the images of our modern Santa derive from, eeehhhmmm, questionable if not spooky sources.

    Indeed, the gift giving, charity, and love of this saint is admirable. But how have we explain the other images, like the reindeer and sleigh, red suit, big white beard and the man living in the snowy north?

    In the high medieval period during what scholars call the lay piety movement many reported seeing Satan. They said he lived in the far far north, dressed in all read with a huge white beard. He rode in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and his name was Ol’ Nick.

    Is this some sort of demonic doppelganger to Saint Nicolas? I am not sure. But here is more on this issue with a bit of evidence. http://bit.ly/hiI8Kt

    • yeah and did you know that it was all started by the illuminati and the Council on Foreign Relations and World Bank

      Geez, some of you folks make me wonder, I thought the John Birch Society was defunct:)

      • p.s. love the How I met your Mother nod though, the doppleganger series is one of the best

      • HAHA. ok guys before you go any further, I am not some crackpot conspiracy theorist. This study is well known among medieval historians but less studied among the general population. I first encountered the info in “Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages” by Jeffrey Burton Russell—a well respected scholar. He takes on the topic on pages 63-91. Other good studies have been done on this as well, such as “Saint Nicolas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan” by C.W. Jones or ” Saint Nicholas: A Psychoanalytic Study of His History and Myth” by A. D. de Groot. This latter study examines the long tradition of fertility cults (fruit, nuts, and fruitcakes as characteristic gifts).

        • Jonathan,

          Just giving you a hard time man. I love this type of stuff. I also love conspiracies and am probably one of the most paranoid folks you will find. I love reading stuff about the Federal Reserve and the Rothchilde sp? family. There is a book called the Creature from Jekyll Island ( a small island in GA that was big during the early part of the 1900’s a playground for the wealthy) and how five or six of the wealthiest men alive sat down and cooked up the Fed Reserve system, and I’m a big beleiver that the CFR is a nefarious organization

      • Cedric Klein says:

        Actually, the Birch Society is alive & well. I am a Conspiracy Buff tho not as much a Conspiracy Believer as I used to be.

        I will have to read the actual sources, esp Jeffrey Burton Russell, which Jonathan needs to put in the article.
        That said, I’m not going to let anything I do be regulated by spectral reports from the Middle Ages. Spectral evidence from 1690s New England would lead me to being scared of very deeply black men.

        • Here is the Source info. “Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984”

          Here is an excerpt.

          “The connections between the Devil and Santa Claus (Sinter Claes, Saint Nicholas) are pronounced. In addition to his association with the north and reindeer, the Devil can wear red fur; he is covered with soot and goes down chimney;s in the guise of Black Jack or the Black Man; He carries a large sack into which he pops sins or sinner (including naughty children); he carries a stick or cane to trash the guilty (the origin of the candy cane); he flies through the air with the help of animals; food and wine are left out for him as a bribe. The Devil’s nickname (!) of Old Nick derives directly from St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was often associated with fertility cults, hence with fruit, nuts, and fruitcake, which are characteristic of his gifts.” p. 71n17

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        yeah and did you know that it was all started by the illuminati and the Council on Foreign Relations and World Bank

        Don’t forget the Deros shining their Telaug Rays up from inside the Hollow Earth…

  10. In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas is very important and celebrated on the night of December 5th (liturgically part of December 6th).
    Saint Nicholas comes from Spain (our ancient oppressor), he has helps called ‘black Petes’ who are supposedly morish but are white ppl with blackened faces.
    He is the one giving the gifts NOT ‘santa Claus’ who is but a derivative of good ole Saint Nich of course.
    If children have been good they get gifts and in the old days it was sad that bad children would go ‘into the empty gift sack’ back to Spain…. horror horror!!!
    Why is Saint Nicholas so important in Holland? He is the patron of the sea farers and even the reformation couldn’t get rid of this ancient medieval tradition.
    We have special Saint Nicholas candy and in a sense Saint Nich is all about children and gift giving, while christmas is simply the birth of Christ.

    • forgot… Saint Nicholas arrives here on a boat (supposedly ‘from Spain’) and the local mayor will welcome him in the presence of thousands of little children with their parents. Little dutch children all believe Saint Nicholas exists, that he is centuries old and simply never died and Saint Nicholas has the official garb of a roman catholic bishop and even strictly reformed dutch people celebrate Saint Nicholas.
      Part and parcel of dutch culture…. he’s also known in Belgium and Germany and Switzerland and Austria but they have slightly different stories and traditions about ‘Sinterklaas’ as we dutch people lovingly call him.

      • Also, in the week before the 5th of December, dutch children put their shoes in the living room with a carrot and hay for the horse of Saint Nicholas and the next day there is all kind of candy in those shoes mostly made of ‘speculaas’ (a brown sugary cinnamon flavoured cookie) and chocolate.
        Also we write poems for the children supposedly in the name of Saint Nicholas and always dated “Madrid, the 5th of December 20..”. Those poems have to rhyme.
        And on dutch national television Saint Nicholas always officially makes his entrance in the Netherlands in his big boat filled with gifts and it’s always the same actor playing him giving credence to his real existence.
        This is why in Holland the christmas season begins only AFTER the 5th of December…

        • And… Saint Nicholas uses his horse to ride over the roof tops and in the old days it was said that he put the gifts ‘through the chimney”…
          My dad’s aunt used to organize a ‘saint Nicholas rallying point’ where dozens of men were disguised as Saint Nicholas and sent of to many families in Amsterdam.

          • Also, referring to that New York society that came up with ‘sante claus’ in the 19th century… to any dutch person it’s but all too obvious that ‘Santaclaus’ is a derivative of our dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ pronounced with an american accent.
            So I guess ‘Santaclaus’ came into being because of the dutch origins of the city of New York as New Amsterdam.
            Saint Nicholas is so immensely popular in Holland some see his feast as more important than christmas and he’s a more important bishop than the pope even for catholics.
            I hate to admit to this but we regard Saint Nicholas as ‘ours’…. it’s true this feast here is older than our nation itself.
            In a sense Saint Nicholas IS the Netherlands….

          • We also have lots of ‘Saint Nicholas’ songs sung by children and the night we exchange gifts is called ‘pakjesavond’ (gift night).
            For little children rented sinterklazen and their ‘black peets’ come and visit to give their performance of a catholic bishop with a white beard and his ‘morish’ helpers.

          • Sinterklaas, goed heilig man!
            Trek je beste tabberd an,
            rij er mee naar Amsterdam,
            van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
            appeltjes van oranje,
            appeltjes van de bomen
            Sinterklaas zal komen!

            Sinterklaas, good holy man!
            Put your best robe on,
            Ride away to Amsterdam,
            To Amsterdam from Spain,
            Little apples from Orange bring,
            Apples from the apple trees,
            Sinterklaas will come!

  11. david carlson says:

    we celebrate St. Nicholas Day every year – even my grown children expect St. Nick to deliver gifts (and he does!)

  12. Rob Saranpa says:

    Check out this story!
    “The Night Jesus Met Santa Claus”:
    http://video.christianpost.com/20101207/the-night-jesus-met-santa-claus/