I received my Christmas gift from a friend. Yes, it was a month late but the chap was overseas and I am truly thankful that he remembered me! It triggered a question: When did Santa Claus begin? We all know that only God is eternal. So how did this wonderful Christmas character who is so giving begin? We didn’t make him up. Saint Nicholas, whose name was changed over the years to Santa Claus, was a real person, a bishop in the church in the fourth century.
Saint Nicholas was born in Patara (Asia Minor) and later moved to Myra (Demre in modern Turkey), where he was elected bishop. He died on Dec. 6 sometime between A. D. 326 and 341. Many stories have been told of his generosity.
In Saint Nicholas’ time, a young woman had to have a dowry (money or material things which she brought to her husband) before she could be married. It’s a custom we have eliminated in our culture because we believe in the equality of women and men. Saint Nicholas wanted to help a poor nobleman with three daughters, but he wanted to do it anonymously (without anyone knowing who did it). He didn’t want to be praised for his generosity. He gave for the joy of giving. So, three bags of gold were thrown through the nobleman’s window. However, the nobleman found out who had given the gold for his daughters’ dowries. After that, anonymous gifts of charity often were attributed to Saint Nicholas.
This good man also spent several years in prison because of his faith. Many prisoners were converted to the Christian faith by his witness.
The stories of Saint Nicholas came to America through the Dutch settlers in the state of New York. He has changed through the years.
Originally, he was dressed in his traditional Bishop’s robes. It wasn’t until the 20th century that he began to be dressed in the red and white outfit in which he appears to us now in the persons of his many “helpers.” In fact, in 1874, the American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew him in a brown suit with brown fur trim.
Dr. Clement C. Moore, a professor of Greek and Biblical Studies at General Theological Seminary of New York, wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (more commonly know as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) in 1822. Only eight reindeer pulled Santa’s sleigh until the song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written.
Jesus, the Christ (the Messiah) is the most important person in the Advent/Christmas season. However, since Saint Nicholas conveys a spirit of generosity and love, we remember him and we too give gifts. Because Saint Nicholas gave us such a good example of helping the poor, Santa Claus may well be a healthy part of our celebrations. As Allan Hauck wrote in Calendar of Christianity, If Santa Claus has become too commercial, too secularized, perhaps it is “because we have forgotten his historical origin in the beloved Bishop of Myra who obeyed Christ’s command that we help all those who are in need.”
Thanks Jeff for the gift.