The story of a jolly man in a red suit who magically appears to children all over the world bringing gifts at Christmas time did not begin in the North Pole. The legend of the real St. Nicholas from whom our modern day Santa Claus emerged, has a story all its own. I hope parents will read this story to their children so they'll understand Santa's Christian roots.
Many ancient writings bear witness to the reality of St. Nicholas of Myra, born sometime between 260 – 280 A.D. in the Greek village of Patara, which is now modern day Turkey. He was a cardinal in the early church. Artwork shows that he was a small man who wore a flowing red robe, had a white beard and balding head. It wasn't just his physical appearance that caused him to become the model for our beloved modern day Santa Claus, it was who he was; a compassionate man who loved children and had a giving spirit. He was often seen carrying a bag of candy and small gifts. Children followed him clinging to his red robe.
Nicholas was the son of wealthy Christian parents who were always generous to those in need. They had a love for God and a passion to serve Him. They sent their son to school to study history and theology. When he was very young, he was given an opportunity to help a poor family. He dropped a sack of gold, no doubt provided by his parents, into an open window; then disappeared before being seen. This was repeated three times and is the origin of the symbol for St. Nicholas; three gold balls. One day, he was caught by the father of the family he was helping.
"Why have you given this gift?" he asked.
"Because you needed it" replied Nicholas.
We've 'modernized' our Santa Claus. He doesn't give because of need or out of love, but as a reward for being 'good'. In some countries, Santa doles out punishment to those who've been 'bad'. The concept of 'grace' has simply been ignored. Nicholas understood the things of God and that He gave us the gift of His Son, not as a reward, but because we so desperately need Him. Along with gifts of toys and candy, he gathered children together to tell them stories of Jesus and the gift He'd given the world by dying on the cross so all who believed could have a relationship with God.When Nicholas was in his mid-teens, he experienced a personal tragedy; both of his parents died, probably the result of a plague. He took his large inheritance, cashed it into Roman coins, and distributed them to the poor. He gave it all away as a memorial to his parents and their lifetime of generosity. He went to live with an uncle who tutored him and then later he attended school in a monastery. He was very young, probably not yet in his twenties, when he entered the priesthood.
At this point in history, there was a period of many years when Christians were persecuted by Roman emperors. Those who would not abandon their faith were tortured or put to death. Because Nicholas was a church leader, he was put in jail. It is said that he was inspired by the Apostle Paul and did as Paul did, sharing the gospel with other prisoners and guards in the rat infested prison. After his release he was elected Bishop of Myra.
It was not uncommon for religious leaders of the day to live a lavish lifestyle, but Nicholas was not a common man. He chose to provide for others, live simply and travel though his district to drop coins into windows or into shoes left on doorsteps of the poor. This no doubt was the basis of the custom that lives on today of putting coins and candy into shoes and 'Christmas' stockings. He never revealed his identity and would disappear before he could be thanked. Sound familiar?
Now, hundreds of years later, children, who are not obligated to listen to an inner voice that says, "This can't be true" eagerly await the arrival of a man dressed in red, watch for deer with soundless hooves, and enjoy the wonder of it all. As you can see, the person of 'Santa Claus' is rooted in sacred Christian tradition, despite the effort to make him secular. The endearing poem 'The Night Before Christmas', also known as 'A Visit from Saint Nicholas', written by Clement Moore in 1822, redefined the image of Santa and is probably the source of the addition of the sleigh and reindeer. Santa had to have a way to travel the world.
Christmas isn't just a 'holiday'; it's a 'holy day' when we celebrate God coming to earth as an infant born in humble surroundings. An event foretold centuries earlier. The world was changed forever that night when the shepherds in the field looked up and saw an angel who announced His arrival; the Messiah had come! Persecution still exits, hold on to what your heart knows to be true. Santa Claus need not take 'Christ' out of Christmas, but be a reminder of a man from the third century who served with humility and shared God's love and joy of giving.