We are all familiar with the legend of Santa Claus. He goes by many names, but the “big fat man with the long white beard” is part and parcel of Christmas traditions around the world. He has come to personify the magic and hope of the holiday season. For this reason, some Christians disapprove of him. They feel Santa is a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas.
This disapproval isn’t necessary. Did you know there actually was a Saint Nicholas? His generosity inspired the legends that evolved into modern-day Santa Claus. Getting to know the man behind the myth actually enriches our celebration of Christmas!
Old Saint Nick
Nicholas was born in the late third century in Lycia (modern-day Turkey). His parents were wealthy Christians who died when he was young. He used his sizable inheritance to help the poor and needy.
His most famous instance of giving was when he saved three young women from poverty. Their father couldn’t afford their dowries. Instead of getting married, they would become prostitutes. Nicholas threw a bag of gold through their window three nights in a row. It is said the bags landed in shoes set out to dry. That is why children today leave shoes out the night before St Nicholas Day – for Nicholas to leave them presents.
Nicholas took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A terrible storm broke out while he was sailing home. God calmed the storm in answer to his prayers. When he arrived back in Myra, he went to the church to thank God. The priests were having trouble finding a new bishop. They agreed to appoint the next priest who walked into the church. It was Nicholas! Thus he became the bishop of Myra.
The Roman Emperor at this time was Diocletian (284-305). He initiated the Great Persecution, the worst persecution of Christians in Roman history. He especially targeted church leaders. It’s said he imprisoned so many clergy that the prisons had no room for actual criminals! Nicholas joined their ranks, suffering imprisonment and torture.
He was released during the reign of Constantine (306-337). Constantine was the first Emperor to convert to Christianity. He convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 to resolve disputes over the Trinity. A man named Arius taught that Jesus had been created and was, therefore, neither eternal nor equal with God the Father. According to legend, Nicholas became so agitated that he slapped Arius across the face!
There are many other stories about Nicholas. He is believed to have stood against corrupt government officials, rescued innocent men from execution and performed miracles. He died on December 6, AD 343. This date is now celebrated as Saint Nicholas Day.
More than a Manger
Nicholas is a Christian to be remembered and admired. His legacy adds another layer of spiritual meaning to the holiday season. Christmas is certainly about Jesus’ birth, but there is no harm in also commemorating the life of one of His most devoted followers.
Nicholas challenges us as wealthy, first-world Christians. He embodies the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Just as “Jesus was rich, yet for our sake he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9), so Nicholas impoverished himself for the sake of others.
Is this how we celebrate Christmas? By selfless, sacrificial giving? Are we fostering this sort of holiday spirit in our children? By God’s grace, may Nicholas’ generosity and willingness to help live on in us!
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