Santa Claus has become firmly entrenched in our culture and collective memory as the jolly, rotund, bearded and gift bearing fellow from North Pole. We take our kids to the mall to request gifts from him, our favorite Christmas songs pay him and his famous reindeer homage, and movies about Santa Claus, ranging from the classic (Miracle on 34th Street) to the irreverent (Billy Bob Thorntons’s Bad Santa) are December staples for Hollywood. So with all this pop culture clout, and in the interest of restoring the true reason for the season, I thought I would explore the inspiration behind the modern day Santa Claus craze, St. Nicholas.
Born in the third century AD in present day Turkey his parents died in an epidemic when Nicholas was just a child. But that tragedy did not dissuade Nicholas from his strong faith convictions, and he would become a bishop at the ripe old age of 17. At age 30 he became the bishop of Myra (now the city of Demre on the south coast of Turkey) Soon after his appointment, the government of the Eastern Roman Empire jailed all Christian bishops who did not publicly sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Nicholas remained in prison for nearly ten years until Constantine conquered the East -- ending the persecution of Christians.
Nicholas was a vigorous opponent of Arianism, the widespread heresy of that time which denied the divinity of Christ. Arianism was defeated at the Council of Nicea in 325AD. Nicholas reputedly not only attended Nicea, but physically accosted Arius there.
Invariably, many legends arose surrounding this strong willed but good hearted Bishop. A sailor who fell overboard was reputedly saved by Nicholas when the saint walked on water, and brought the sailor back to his ship. After a deranged innkeeper had robbed & dismembered some students, Nicholas is said to have re-assembled the students and restored them to life. Nicholas once took pity on a poverty-stricken family with three daughters who faced the threat of being forced into prostitution because they had no wedding dowries. For two daughters he crept-up to their house at night and threw bags of gold through a bedroom window. For the last daughter, he threw a bag of gold down the chimney -- which landed in a stocking she had set by the fireplace for drying. The traditional association of chimneys and stockings with Santa Claus comes from this story. Nicholas became famous for his generosity with children. He would reward children who studied their catechism with treats, and thus he became the patron saint of schoolchildren.
The legend of Nicholas made him so popular that more European churches bore his name than that of any of the apostles. The date of Nicholas's death -- reputedly on December 6th, 326 AD -- was widely celebrated as the feast of Saint Nicholas. This tradition continues in many countries.
However, there is no official record of his canonization. On February 14, 1969 the Pope removed Nicholas from the calendar of saints. However, The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to recognize the sainthood of Nicholas. The transformation of Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus happened largely in America – thanks to the Dutch colonists. In 1809 Washington Irving, a member of the New York Historical Society created a tale of a chubby, pipe-smoking little Saint Nicholas who road a magic horse through the air visiting all houses in New York. The elfish figure was small enough to climb down chimneys with gifts for the good children and switches for the bad ones.
The 1823 poem "The Night Before Christmas” replaced the horse with a sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer. And the rest, as they say, is history.
According to one study, 85% of four-year-olds believe in Santa Claus. Belief drops to 65% by age six and to 25% by age eight. I guess by eight years old we can begin to understand something doesn’t work. How can Santa visit every house? How can a chubby, large man fit in a chimney? How can Santa be in so many shopping malls at the same time???
It’s at this time, when the pop culture myth fades, that we should restore in our children’s minds, what the real Santa Claus would have wanted, and indeed fought for: The realization that the Christmas season celebrates not material gifts which come down the chimney, but a divine gift which comes down from heaven.
Happy St. Nicholas Day!!