At this time of year in the USA, we are inundated with movies, television specials, cartoons, and images about Santa Claus. Some are quite good, entertaining, and fun, most are just, well, not. Christians when facing the secular culture often find some questions difficult to answer. Santa Claus shouldn’t be one of those difficult questions. We can offer a resounding “yes, there is a Santa Claus,” and a cheery “I believe in Santa Claus.” Santa is not the secular culture trying to take Christmas away from Christianity, not if we really look at what we know about Santa Claus. Ironically, two of the most successful recent movies that feature Santa Claus have opposite themes. The theme of Polar Express is “seeing is believing,” while the theme of Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause series of movies is “believing is seeing.” I would suggest that St. Alcuin had it right when he said “I don’t understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand.” With that wisdom in mind, let’s look at Santa Claus, AKA St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in Patara, Lycia. His parents died, and he inherited a considerable sum of money, but he kept none of it, giving it instead to the poor.
Perhaps the most important story about St. Nicholas tells that he was cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletion, but when Constantine became emperor, Nicholas was released with countless others and returned to his preaching only to find a new threat: Arianism, a heresy that taught that Jesus was a created Spirit and not the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra was spared the Arian heresy. St. Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicea, where he slapped (some sources say he punched) Arius in the face for his heresy!
St. Nicholas was tireless in opposing not only the heresy of Arianism, but paganism as well, and he took strong measures: among other temples he destroyed was that of Artemis, the principal pagan worship in the district.
His relics are still preserved in the church of San Nicola in Bari; up to the present day an oily substance, known as Manna di S. Nicola, which is highly valued for its medicinal powers, is said to flow from them.
St. Nicholas was represented by medieval artists more frequently than any saint but Mary, and nearly 400 churches were dedicated in his honor in England alone during the late Middle Ages. In Holland he was known as Sinterklass, and the Dutch in New Amsterdam brought the stories to America, where Sinterklass came to be known as Santa Claus. Martin Luther tried to replace this St. Nicholas as a bearer of gifts with the Christ Child, or, in German, Christkindl. Over the years, that became pronounced as Kriss Kringle, which ironically is now considered another name for Santa Claus!
St. Nicholas’ name occurs in the Orthodox liturgy of St John Chrysostom.
The following places honour him as patron: Greece, Russia, the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily, Lorraine, the Diocese of Liège; many cities in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Belgium; Galway in Scotland; Campen in the Netherlands; Corfu in Greece; Freiburg in Switzerland; and Moscow in Russia. He is patron of mariners, merchants, bakers, travellers, children, etc.
In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, they have the custom of making him the secret purveyor of gifts to children on 6 December, his feast day; in the United States and some other countries St. Nicholas has become identified with Santa Claus who distributes gifts to children on Christmas eve.
Perhaps the best-known story about St. Nicholas concerns his charity toward a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters of marriageable age. Rather than see them forced into prostitution, St. Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through the poor man’s window on three separate occasions, thus enabling the daughters to be married. Over the centuries, this particular legend evolved into the custom of gift-giving on the saint’s feast.
The governor Eustathius had taken a bribe to condemn to death three innocent men. At the time fixed for their execution Nicholas came to the place, stayed the hands of the executioner, and released the prisoners. Then he turned to Eustathiujs and did not cease to reproach him until he admitted his crime and expressed his penitence.
During his lifetime, St. Nicholas appeared to storm tossed mariners who invoked his aid off the coast of Lycia and brought them safely to port. This is the origin of his patronage of sailors.
When pagans or misguided Christians try to take away Santa Claus, tell them the truth about Santa. He was a generous, caring, wonder-working, defender of Christianity and tough, steadfast opponent of heresy and paganism. As a saint, he is in the nearer Presence of God and responsive to His will and work. Yes, believe in Santa Claus and teach your children to as well!