When it comes to Santa Claus, Christians are divided. Some Christians embrace the idea of Santa Claus viewing it as a fun and harmless tradition. Others reject Santa because they don’t want to lie to their children, and also the fat guy at the North Pole coming through the chimney on Christmas seems to take away from what Christmas is about. They are zealous for the real meaning of Christmas which is the Christ. What is helpful for all is an understanding of the origins of Santa. This is helpful for everyone, particularly from a gospel perspective. As Christians, we want to know how we can keep Christmas about Jesus, and take opportunity to speak about Jesus. Therefore, I thought it worthwhile to write a little about the historical figure behind the Santa Claus legend.
St. Nicholas and Gift Giving
Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in modern day Turkey. Born in 270AD (March 15?), he was the son of a wealthy family and had a vibrant faith in Jesus from an early age. He didn’t live at an easy time though. The persecution of Christians was rampant. During these years there were two great persecutions of Christians by the Roman emperors (Diocletian, 303AD and Galerius 306-311AD). Many of those who worshipped Jesus were martyred in the arenas and executed. Nicholas was faithful to Jesus in these trying times, and the strong anti-Christian sentiment in the Empire brought serious hardship to many Christians. One Christian neighbour of Nicholas had three daughters. Because of the persecution, this neighbour was unable to pay his debts and his daughters were to be taken from him and sold into slavery to pay these debts. Nicholas had a large inheritance from his wealthy parents, and knowing about this family, late one night, he threw a bag of money through the open window of this family’s house. This provided a dowry for the eldest daughter, although the father did not know where the money had come from. Shortly thereafter, on another night, Nicholas threw another bag of money for the second daughter. On a third night, he threw a third bag of money for the final daughter. The sound of the bag hitting the floor inside the house woke the father and he quickly ran out to see who his benefactor was. It was Bishop Nicholas!
St. Nicholas and Theology
In 324AD a man living in York, Britannia united the Roman Empire. This man was named Constantine, and he ended the persecution against Christians. The following year (325AD), a massive church council was assembled in Nicaea where 318 leading Christians assembled from around the Empire to debate and discuss a heresy that was spreading through the teachings of a man named Arius. Arius taught that Jesus was not God become man, but rather a mere created being. These 318 prominent church leaders gathered to discuss the Arian heresy, including Nicholas Bishop of Myra. The discussion had become so heated at one point that Nicholas enraged by the Arian heresy, stood up, walked across the room, and slapped Arius across the face. He was a man with great passion for what the Bible teaches about Jesus. It was at this council that the Nicene Creed was formed (click here to watch our short video on the Nicene Creed which was signed by 316 of the 318 present). We see that Nicholas was both passionate about what the Bible teaches (as we see here), and about the love of God being tangibly expressed (as seen above with the father and his three daughters).
St. Nicholas and the Following Centuries
St. Nicholas died 6 December, 343AD. He was remember as a hero of the faith by the church. The 6th of December was celebrated annually by Christians, remembering the life of this man. In the 12th Century in France, a group of nuns were moved by the life of Nicholas and began filling stockings with food and leaving them on the doorstep of the poor on the 6th of December. The idea caught on and slowly gift giving began to spread throughout Europe on the 6th of December. The Dutch had referred to Saint Nicholas as Sinterklaas (which is how it sounds when you say Sint Nikolaas quickly) which is where we get the name Santa Claus. Unfortunately over time, appreciation of saints was overrun by veneration of saints, and by the 16th Century there was need for reformation in the Church. Martin Luther along with other reformers, stopped the saints days (there was a saint for each of the 365 days of the year, and rather than praying to God through Jesus as their mediator, they began to pray through these saints as their mediators). The claim of the reformers was, that we have only one mediator, and that is Jesus Christ. This claim was true and traditions had wandered from this clear biblical truth. But the importance of gift giving on the 6th of December was highly regarded by all the people. Thus the German reformers proclaimed that gift giving was to happen on the 25th of December, not in honour of Nicholas, but in honour of Jesus. The Germans began to give gifts on behalf of the Christkindl (which sounds like Chris Kringle) or Christ Child .
In 1822, Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem entitled “The Night Before Christmas.” In the poem St. Nicholas was portrayed as a kind and jovial man in a red suit. Then in 1931 Haddon Sundblom created a series of advertisements for the Coca-Cola company which is where we get our modern picture of Santa Claus!
St. Nicholas and the Gospel
Regardless as to whether or not you like to do Santa Claus in your home, the story of the man behind the legend is worth retelling. Why?
- He was a man who stood as a church leader, ready to die for his faith in a culture where Christians were hated and killed for their hope in Jesus.
- He believed that the Good News of Jesus should cause Christians to be a blessing to their neighbours and so his faith wasn’t just doctrinal, it was practical. Nicholas really showed people the love of Jesus.
- He knew that right living flows out of right theology. He zealously contended for the biblical gospel, the Word made flesh, the author of the story entering the story that he might redeem it. His faith was true and his faith was active.
This is a story worth telling about at Christmas! He is an example of following Christ. We often complain about how our culture takes away from the true meaning of Christmas. Let’s redeem it. Let’s tell people about the real St. Nicholas. Let us proclaim the same message that Nicholas proclaimed. Nicholas signed his name on the Nicene Creed which reads in part…
I believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
Now that’s worth celebrating!