St. Nicholas—the real Santa Claus—would not have been happy to be called a “right jolly old elf.” Other parts of Clement Moore’s “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” might also have riled him up (what man wants to be told his belly jiggles like a “bowl full of jelly”?), but this would have hurt. Elves were originally neither nice nor Christian. Old English sages would nod knowingly at sudden fevers and confidently diagnose “elf-shot” as the cause. Nicholas is the opposite of troublemaking pagan spirits. The true story of St. Nick concerns a boy who grew into a beloved bishop at a time when being a Christian could get you killed. As much as I like Moore’s poem, the real Nicholas had a courageous Christian love even better than that of a jovial elf.
The True Story of St. Nicholas
Nick lived in a world in transition. He was born by the sea in the third century in modern Turkey, then a prosperous Roman province. His family followed the Christian faith even though they, like all Christians in the Roman Empire, risked their lives to do so. Nicholas would become part of the first generation to see Rome suddenly embrace Christianity. In the meantime, the worst of the persecutions seem to have bypassed his family. They were less lucky with disease. An epidemic orphaned Nicholas, leaving him alone except for a faithful uncle.
Nick found his comfort in his family’s faith. He threw himself into prayer, especially making the most of the Sunday sabbath. He abandoned himself to generosity, quietly using the wealth he had inherited as an only child to help the needy. He chose poverty for himself to find the riches of Christ. The elders of the local church noticed this remarkable youth despite and, to his surprise, elected him bishop of the port city of Myra despite his age.
Becoming Santa Claus
So how did Nicholas become the iconic, omnipresent Santa? In some ways he fits into the role much better than a fat man fits into a chimney. His experience as an orphan child and his youthful vocation could have given him a special love for children.
He also loved to give. Tradition says that he learned of a poor father considering selling his daughters into slavery since he couldn’t support them and they had no dowries to attract a husband (yes, fathers could do that, so children behave!). Nick anonymously threw a stocking full of gold through the their window, providing a dowry for the eldest so she could marry. He did the same for the second and then the third daughter when they came of age. The father caught him the third time, thanked him profusely, and spread the story. Some later versions have the gold contained in a shoe. That is why one old European tradition has children put their newly polished shoes outside their doors on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) for him to fill with treats.
Santa obviously is magical too. How else could he visit every kid in the world in one night? Eastern Orthodox tradition calls the bishop St. Nicholas “the Wonderworker” because he had an extraordinary reputation for miracles even among saints. Most of his famous early wonders involved the sea, and St. Nick first gained honor as a protector of seafarers. One of his miracles, however, involved resurrecting three students murdered by an evil innkeeper who chopped up and hid their bodies. Later versions of the story made the students increasing young and it is that gruesome miracle (rather than the dowries) that began to make St. Nicholas a popular patron of children.
The custom of giving gifts to poor children in Nicholas’ name began with nuns in medieval France. St. Nicholas gifts quickly gained enough popularity to partially survive even the Protestant Reformation’s attack on saints in later centuries. Some St. Nicholas traditions limped into our Protestant country via New York under the Dutch name Sint-Nicolaas, which transformed into Sinterklaas and then “Santa Claus.” In the 1800s, Washington Irving, Clement Moore, and cartoonist Thomas Nast developed the modern myth of Santa Claus to create a new Christmas tradition that would build up the family and have meaning without the taint of Catholic “superstition.”
There is one other modern side to St. Nicholas Day or, as some Christians like to call it, “Punch-a-Heretic Day.” You can find a number of zealous Christians on December 6 passing around memes with Nicholas saying things like, “I came to give presents to kids and to punch heretics, and I just ran out of presents” (also available as a refrigerator magnet to bring that extra holiday cheer!).
The reason for this jovial celebration of violence goes back to the Council of Nicaea, the first great gathering of Christian leaders after Constantine legalized Christianity in Rome. At stake was the key question in Christianity—Jesus’ “Who do you say that I am?” One priest, Arius, had rocked the Christian world by arguing that Jesus was not God, but rather God’s great first creation. It made a lot of philosophical sense, avoiding hard questions about how God could be three-in-one or how an omnipresent God could become human. However, Arianism also meant that God did not become one of us out of love nor did He love us enough to suffer death for our salvation.
Nicholas, overcome with shock and horror as Arius began to sway the assembly, sprang to his feet and slapped Arius across the face to bring him to his senses. The outraged council stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s clothes and threw him in jail. The next morning, however, they found him in his cell with the Gospels and a bishop’s stole. Nicholas explained that Jesus and Mary had appeared to him and asked him why he was in jail. Nicholas simply said, “I was overcome with love for you.” And so Jesus had returned to him the insignia of a bishop.
I quite enjoyed the story when I first read it. It seemed a good antidote to the saccharine Coca-Cola Santa Claus. As I have gotten older, I have gotten less enthused. I worry more now about whether I will escape unscathed if we start smiting sinners and well-intentioned heretics. Furthermore, unlike most other stories of Nick here, it turns out that this legend almost certainly has no historical value.
Love, Courage, and the Challenge of Christmas
So is the story of generous St. Nick hitting heretics, like Moore’s Santa Claus, a perversion of the historical holy man? Not exactly. The idea that love of God made Nicholas risk himself to proclaim truth is part of who he was. Nicholas didn’t just quietly chuck socks through windows. He was bold in fighting for his people. He miraculously convinced merchants to bring grain to his city when his people were starving. He stood up to the emperor to gain relief for his city from crushing taxes. He saved three falsely accused military officers from execution while calling out his city’s leader for corruption. When Christianity was legalized, he boldly proclaimed it and led a campaign to close the old pagan temples.
Nicholas had a burning love for God at a time when society made it hard. It is that love, nurtured by his parents, by his uncle, and by hours of prayer, that made him famously generous. That same love made him publicly challenge the authorities to fight injustice against his people, and it also gave him the courage to proclaim Jesus and invite others to embrace that faith.
That St. Nick is a more challenging Santa Claus than we find in the shopping mall. For myself, I can handle the reminder to be generous to the poor. Do I have the courage though to speak up about the underlying problems that cause my fellow people to suffer? That is a little harder. Do I have the courage to speak up about the joy of loving Jesus this Advent? I come from a culture where debating religion is impolite, so that is even harder for me. I should speak up though. Christmas is Jesus’ birth. The greatest gift at Christmas is God’s gift of Himself to us—the very thing that supposedly moved Nicholas at Nicaea. It is a gift made for sharing.
May we have the faith to be moved by God’s gift, as Nicholas was, to become more generous, loving, and courageous.
Bonus Fun Facts
- Ukraine celebrates two feasts of St. Nicholas. Ukrainians say the first snow comes around the December one when “cold” St. Nicholas shakes his white beard.
- St. Nicholas’ bones excrete a small amount of liquid known as the oil or manna of St. Nicholas (yes, this was confirmed in the 1950s). Pilgrims believe it has healing powers and will take small bottles of that liquid diluted with water away from the tomb with them.
- In Juneau, Alaska, the native Tlingit named their Russian Orthodox parish after St. Nicholas because they say converted when the saint appeared to their elders in dreams in the 1862. The Tlingit traditionally lived off the bounty of the sea like many of St. Nicholas’ early devotees.
- Learn about St. Nicholas celebrations around the world here