St Nicholas Saint’s Day falls this Thursday.
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century along what is now the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children and his concern for sailors and ships.
He died 6 December 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day.
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.
A story tells of three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. In France a story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, lured, and captured by an evil butcher. St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families. And so St. Nicholas is the patron and protector of children.
Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas’ feast day kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor. In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. In the Netherlands St. Nicholas day is celebrated by sharing sweets, chocolate letters in the initials of the children, small gifts and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint’s horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. Simple gift-giving in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.
So how did the kindly Christian saint, good Bishop Nicholas, become a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for merry holiday festivity and commercial activity?
Cutting a very long story short, US churches, influenced by German immigrants who loved Christmas and church musicians embracing carol singing began to bring Christmas observances into people’s lives. The growth of Sunday Schools in cities exposed hundreds of thousands of children to Christianity. Initially opposed to Christmas observance, by the 1850s Sunday Schools had discovered that a Christmas tree, Santa and gifts greatly improved attendance. So, in a strange twist of fate, the new "secular" Santa Claus, no longer seen as a religious figure, helped return Christmas observance to American churches.
Santa was then portrayed by dozens of artists in a wide variety of styles, sizes, and colours. However by the end of the 1920s, a standard American Santa—life-sized in a red, fur-trimmed suit—had emerged. The image was solidified by thirty-five years of Coca-Cola Santa advertisements that further popularised and firmly established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.
This Santa was life-sized, jolly, and by the 1950s Santa was turning up everywhere endorsing an amazing range of consumer products. This commercial success led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world where he threatens to overcome the European St. Nicholas, who has retained his identity as a Christian bishop and saint.
It’s been a long journey from the fourth century Bishop who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity to those in need, to America’s jolly Santa Claus, whose largesse often supplies luxuries to the affluent. However, if you peel it all back he is still St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children. He is a model of how Christians are meant to live. Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the centre of his life, his ministry, in fact his entire existence. I wonder if families and churches might embrace the St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true centre of Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Such a focus might help restore balance against the increasingly materialistic Christmas season.