The Real St. Nick

As we prepare for the sublime feast of the Nativity of Our Lord during these weeks of Advent, we can’t help but notice the trappings of our secular culture that continually impose themselves on the “holiday season.” Meanwhile, more overtly religious expressions, such as créches or Nativity scenes, are systematically excluded from the public square.

As the father of six and also a new grandfather, the 800-pound gorilla in my living room—or, should I say, the jolly 300-pound man in the chimney—is Santa Claus. How do I explain the peculiar man in the red suit to Brenda, Mary Kate, Virginia, Abigail, Samuel, Raymond, and Alex, not to mention my godchildren, nephews, and nieces? Why does he always show up this time of year?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His real name is St. Nicholas. He was a fourth-century priest, abbot, and eventually Bishop of Myra, Lycia (modern Turkey). There is no doubt that he existed, and that he was universally recognized as a holy and generous Church leader who suffered for the faith.

Two episodes from St. Nicholas’ life form the basis of the folklore concerning Santa Claus. In one case, St. Nicholas anonymously provided dowries in stockings for three young daughters of a nobleman who had squandered his fortune. This windfall saved the girls from being sold into prostitution. On another occasion, he secretly ransomed three innocent boys who were condemned to death by a corrupt governor. In both cases, the gifts were surprising and possibly derived through miraculous means.

Popular piety later attributed to St. Nicholas the giving of surprising gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, which we celebrate today, December 6th. The popularity of this feast and its proximity to Christmas—which, through its connection to Epiphany was also associated with gift-giving—led to the eventual association of St. Nicholas with Christmas Eve in English-speaking countries.

The name “Santa Claus” is an approximation of the Dutch rendering of St. Nicholas as Sint Niklaas, which over time was pronounced “Sinter Klaus” and eventually was rendered “Santa Claus.” Over time, Protestant reformers sought to downplay St. Nick’s “Catholic trappings,” making him look less like a bishop and more like an old man in a festive red suit. The contemporary association of Santa with pipes, reindeer, chimneys, elves, and so forth are all embellishments that different European nationalities have contributed to the basic story. Perhaps fittingly, America has become the great melting pot of Santa traditions.

While the original St. Nicholas was frequently pictured with a white beard and a red robe customarily worn by fourth-century bishops, our popular image of Santa Claus stems mostly from 19th-century American culture. Perhaps the most significant Santa-related work from that time was Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known today as “The Night Before Christmas,” which describes Santa as a “jolly old elf” with a big belly and rosy cheeks. Then Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the “definitive” Santa with the North Pole being his official “home.” Coca Cola used the classic image of Santa drinking Coke in its early 20th-century advertising, creating the secular icon that has since been associated with the Christmas commercialism that characterizes the distinctively American approach to the holiday.

While Western society has largely abandoned its Christian roots and doesn’t fully understand altruistic Christian principles and virtues, it’s still addicted to the economic boon connected to the holiday. So, as I mentioned in my last post, we count “shopping days” till Christmas instead celebrate Advent as a season of spiritual preparation.

Keeping Christ in Christmas may sound trite, but it’s inescapably true that without Christ, the basis for all the outward trappings crumbles. So, in our house, Advent is a time focused on the coming of Christ. Our preparation culminates in the joyous celebration of Christmas, a celebration that ends with Epiphany, not the after-Christmas sales. We rejoice in the gift of Christ to the world. We strive to bring Him the gift of our hearts and treasures, and to affirm His presence in others through our modest but thoughtful gifts.

I never tell my kids that there is no Santa Claus. While they have no interest in sitting on the lap of the imposter at the mall, they are drawn by the wonder of the real thing—not Santa Claus holding a bottle of Coca Cola, but the coming of Christ into our world as its Light and Savior. This reality transformed St. Nicholas and made him forever a model of generosity in service of God’s people.

St. Nicholas, pray for us.

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