Yes Virginia, there is a Saint Nicholas.
From the moment our first son was born, my entire outlook on life was turned on its side and Christmas was no exception. Each time I walked into a store during the Christmas season, it felt like I was surrounded by Santa-inspired commercialism. My heart sank because I felt like Santa was trying to steal away the joy and true meaning of Christmas. So, I set out on a mission to focus my heart and our family traditions on the true meaning of Christmas. I have to admit that I sort of love the fact that our almost 4 ½ year old has no idea who Santa Claus is yet. And yes, I know that is living in a bubble that will inevitably be popped. However, it has inspired me to go on a mission to find out where our Christmas traditions come from and to seek out Christ in Christmas.
So, who is Santa Claus? Where did he come from? When did he become a part of the Christmas celebration? How do we, as Christians, involve Santa in our Christmas traditions, if at all?
Santa Claus is a fictionalized character that grew from the celebration of St. Nicholas, pronounced “Sinter Klaas” by the Dutch. The name Kris Kringle is from a Dutch word too– “Christkindle”, meaning “Christ Child.”
St. Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century AD in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). There are a lot of legends about the life of St. Nicholas, most of which are fictionalized. What we do know is that he was a very rich man; his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it.
The most famous legend about St. Nicholas goes like this: There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn’t get married (a dowry is a sum of money paid to the bridegroom by the bride’s parents on the wedding day. This still happens today in some countries). One night, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through their window and into the house.
This gift of money meant that the oldest daughter was then able to get married. The legend was that the bag fell into a sock/stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry. This was repeated later with the second daughter and then the third. Finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But the news got out anyway and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas. St. Nicholas was said to have dedicated his life to serving the Lord and His people and giving all of his fortunes away to those in need.
So, you can see through the legend of St. Nicholas where so many of our Christmas traditions are derived. How St. Nicholas became a fictionalized character with reindeer and a residence at the North Pole is a whole other story.
Europeans celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. For instance, in Germany, children leave their shoes out on the evening of December 5th and after the children go to sleep, parents fill their shoes with things like chocolate gold coins, other goodies and an orange (which was considered quite a treat back in the day as citrus fruit was not grown in Germany and not easy to come by).
So, for us as a family, we are celebrating St. Nicholas Day talking about a great man that exemplified the true spirit of Christmas- generously giving in love. St. Nicholas lived his life dedicated to serving the Lord and His people and we hope to do the same.
Santa Claus has become an American tradition and if you and your family include Santa Claus in your Christmas traditions, that’s ok; the celebration of Santa, by itself, is not bad. Maybe this year you might like to include talking about St. Nicholas and/or celebrating St. Nicholas day. What a great opportunity to dive even deeper into the real meaning of Christmas.