Every year at IRCC on a Sunday morning in December, I tell the kids the truth about Santa Claus – with an opportunity for any parents who wish, to have their children excused. I will present here a slightly more detailed and adult version of that truth. Santa Claus is real! He just lived a long time ago – nowhere near the North Pole.
He was born Nicholas of Bari in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). His family was wealthy and prominent and he was able to travel and become well educated. His interests lay with the church as opposed to the military or industry. Eventually, he became the Bishop of Myra – also in Turkey.
Almost everything we know about him was written at least a century after his death (born in AD 270, died in AD 343 at 73 years of age) so the authenticity of the information is much argued. In the end, much of it is reckoned to have at least a core of historical validity – the exception being several miracles attributed to Nicholas (He is often referred to as Nicholas the Wonder Worker. Of the miracles I will say nothing here beyond the fact that the rumor of them contributes to the ‘magical’ nature of his reputation as Santa Claus.
When Nicholas’ wealthy parents died, he is said to have distributed their money to the poor by means of a prolonged campaign of secret gift giving – especially to young people – though most of his gift giving doesn’t match our conception of Christmas gift giving. An example: Nicholas was aware of a poor man with three daughters. Having no funds to provide doweries, the man was unable to arrange marriages for his daughters so they would be cared for after he was gone. Before you go all crazy on me – it was a different time and, fair or not, women in those circumstances depended on men to take care of them. It is entirely true that without dowries, the future prospects of poor girls were – limited. It was also true that the estimate of ‘marriageable’ age – was a bit lower than we have. These girls would have been what we would call children. Often such poor girls would be forced into prostitution or a life of hard and miserable labor to procure a very minimal standard of living. Nicholas came by late at night and dropped a bag of gold through a window in the poor man’s house. Using that as a dowry, the man arranged a marriage for his oldest girl. No sooner was that done than a second late night gold drop occurred. And, after the middle daughter was married off – a third. Most of Nicholas’ secret gift giving follows a similar pattern, i.e., his generosity saving people from ill circumstances.
Alright then – a secret gift giver presumed to have the power to work wonders – I don’t much care for the term ‘magic’ but it falls into the modern narrative.
Nicholas is said to have attended the famous Nicean Council (If you don’t know what the Nicean Council was – look it up). For now, suffice it to say it was an event upon which several doctrinal questions were decided for the larger church. One of the issues in contention was classic Trinitarianism (God is three and yet one) verses Arianism – so called for a cleric named Arius. Arius held that Jesus did not exist before his arrival in Bethlehem – that God begot Jesus in ‘time’ – so that, unlike God the Father, God the Son had a beginning. This would make Jesus distinct from God – related to Him but not ‘One With God’ as per trinitarianism. Nicholas argued with Arius and things got so heated that Nicholas is said to have slapped Arius (or punched him in the nose depending on the source).
So, our magical secret gift giver now becomes forever associated with Christmas – the birth of Christ – even if we have forgotten the specifics of the original doctrinal dispute. BTW – Nicholas did get in trouble for this even though the council ultimately sided with him on Trinitarianism. Nicholas was never a stranger to trouble. Under the anti-Christian campaign of the Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas went to prison. When Constantine came to power and made Christianity the state religion, Nicholas (and many others) were released.
After his death Nicholas was made a Saint with all the usual hoopla of church building, relocation of bones, becoming the patron saint of this and that group. He was an immensely popular saint throughout the Middle Ages. In some strange fashion, the most popular story of St. Nicholas at the time involved a terrible man who murdered and pickled children to be sold as ‘pork’ during a famine. I will leave you to seek more on that tale on your own.
After the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, the popularity of Nicholas died all over Europe with the exception of Holland where the name ‘Nicholas’ was rendered as ‘Klause’. Sinter (Saint) Klause (Nicholas). Well, that explains something.
The Dutch legends of Sinter Klause met American Popular Culture in the 19th Century and – presto – Santa Claus – a magical secret gift giver and lover of young people with a built in on ramp to Christmas! How the North Pole got into the act is beyond me. But the legend remembers something of the truth. And the truth always comes back to Jesus Christ. If the actual Saint Nicholas saw what we sometimes do with Christmas – he just might punch us in the nose.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church