From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus

I recently asked my three-year old granddaughter—a major joy in my life—whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas time. “Uh,” she responded, “Santa Claus?” D’oh!

Some people think Santa Claus is upstaging Jesus. I remember a controversial cover of Christianity Today long ago, showing Santa Claus crucified on a cross, hung up by strands of Christmas lights. More recently, a group of atheists put Santa on billboards to encourage people to skip church at Christmas.

But Santa is based on the life of a real man whose generosity came from his following Jesus. Thus, Santa Claus actually points to Jesus.

Bill Federer has written much about how St. Nicholas became Santa Claus in his book, There Really Is a Santa Claus, which provides the basis for much of this article.

St. Nicholas (c. 270-343) was a real man. He served as a bishop in Myra, in what is modern day Turkey. He was one of the 318 bishops who participated in the Nicene Council, which produced the Nicene Creed.

Nicholas directly opposed Arius, who was ruled a heretic because of his false teaching about the trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Arius’ proposed demotion of Jesus’ divinity caused the Council of Nicaea to be called in the first place.

Bishop Nicholas was a very generous man. He inherited a lot of money, and he gave away a lot of it anonymously. Nicholas reportedly said: “The giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic God’s giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.”

Jesus said when you give, don’t be like the hypocrites who blow the trumpet and announce to all what they give. Instead, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Your Father who knows all things and sees what is done in secret knows when you are generous.

Nicholas was able to put these principles into practice before he became a bishop. Federer tells us that according to tradition, Nicholas learned of a merchant, who lost everything because of debt. The creditors threatened to seize his home, leaving the man and his three beautiful daughters with nothing.

He wanted to get his daughters married, lest they be seized by the creditors and sold into slavery and prostitution. But the man had no dowries for his daughters. A dowry (wedding gift) was needed for any marriage to be legally recognized.

The first daughter was pledged to be married, but could not be without a dowry. One night, as the story goes, Nicholas anonymously threw a pouch of gold into the window of the home of the merchant for the dowry for the first daughter.

Then later, in the middle of another night, Nicholas did the same thing for the second daughter. The father then exclaimed, “O merciful God, Author of our salvation, Who hast redeemed me by Thine Own Blood and now redeemest by gold my home and my daughters from the nets of the enemy, do Thou Thyself show me the minister of Thy mercy and Thy philanthropic goodness. Show me this earthly angel who preserves us from sinful perdition…”

Then came help for the third daughter. Again, St. Nicholas took some gold and tossed it into the house through the window. According to the legend, it landed in one of the stockings of the daughter that was hanging up by the fireplace to dry. This is the supposed source of the tradition of Christmas stockings.

The merchant got up, ran out, and caught St. Nicholas. Nicholas swore him to secrecy, and the father reportedly said, “If the Lord great in mercy had not raised me up through thy generosity, then I, an unfortunate father, already long ago would be lost together with my daughters in the fire of Sodom. Now we are saved through thee and delivered from a horrible fall into sin.”

Nicholas gave God alone the glory and in his humility, he made the father swear that as long as Nicholas was alive, no one would know that he was the benefactor.

From the story of St. Nicholas has ultimately come the tradition of Santa Claus—whose name is derived from the Dutch way of saying St. Nicholas. But it all grows out of the Christian tradition.

D. James Kennedy and I point out in our book, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? that if there were no Jesus, there would be no Santa Claus. Thus, like so many other things in this world, when the truth is told about the origin of the Santa Claus, it points to the glory of our Lord.

And as radio broadcaster Paul Harvey was wont to say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”