Santa Claus has a history all his own.
St. Nicholas of Myra was a Catholic Monk born to Greek Christian parents around 280 A.D. His family was considered to be wealthy. When his parents died during an epidemic, Nicholas gave away his inheritance, obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” He became famous for his generosity and compassion toward children and the sick.
Nicholas is legendary for his secret gift-giving.
There are many stories about the good works of St. Nicholas. And while no one knows how much of it is true, we do know that he was a very generous person who’s life has had a significant impact on all of us.
In one of his most famous acts of generosity, Nicholas gave the dowry for three daughters of a devout father. As the legend recounts, the man had lost all his money yet he was faithful. If he was unable to pay dowries, his daughters would remain unmarried and most likely become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ predicament, Nicholas went to their house under cover of darkness and threw a bag of gold coins through an open window. This allowed the father to immediately arrange for his first daughter to be married. After the wedding, Nicholas again went to the home after dark and threw another bag of coins through the window. Following the wedding of the second daughter, the father stayed awake waiting to find out who was supplying the gold. He fell to his knees thanking Nicholas. Nicholas told the father never to tell anyone about the gifts.
It’s easy to see, from the story above, how the legend of Santa started to take form. The giving of gifts under cover of darkness and the request to keep his identity a secret are still present in today’s tradition of Santa Claus. And many a child has tried to stay up late to see Santa delivering gifts in person.
The church began celebrating a feast for St. Nicholas on December the 6th, the date of St. Nicholas’ passing. Over time, Nicholas became the center of of various folk legends related to his giving. By the middle ages, the popularity of St. Nicholas spread to Europe.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch adopted the more friendly spelling “Sinterklaas” and began the tradition of sweets and gifts to children. As people came to “the New World” in the 1700’s so did the story of St. Nicholas and families continued his celebration. Sinterklaas became “Santa Claus.”
In the early 1800’s the New York Historical Society produced wooden cutouts of Nicholas that hung over fireplaces. Our current images of Santa Claus came from a cartoonist working for Harper’s Weekly magazine based on the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” In the mid 1800’s, people began wearing St. Nick costumes in shops. And by the late 1800’s, the Salvation Army was using people dressed as Santa to ring bells and solicit donations in the streets of New York City.
While St. Nicholas may only appear once a year, it is a good opportunity for everyone to learn about Jesus. It’s a time to talk about Jesus’ birth, the gifts of the wise men and the ultimate gift of salvation that Jesus gave when he died on the cross. Christmas is also a good time to encourage children to avoid getting coal in their stockings and behave as Jesus says in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”
Santa Claus may not be real but the generous spirit of God that lived through St. Nicholas years ago must live on through Jesus’ followers today!
As we celebrate this season of giving, remember this:
“For God loves a person who gives cheerfully. And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.” (2 Corinthians 9:7b-8)