Who Was the Real St. Nick?

Every Christmas season children make wish lists and might even write a letter to “Santa Claus,” also known as Saint Nicholas. (In the United Kingdom he is called “Father Christmas.”) As Christians, there are many opinions and views on how to speak with our kids about Santa, and those are important. Here though, we want to do is give you some context on the real St. Nick. Admittedly, not too much is known for certain about St. Nicholas, but what can be known has inspired the traditions about him.

The fictional character of Santa Claus is actually even based on this historical Christian figure.

Why is that? Because they shared some traits in common.

St. Nicholas lived approximately from March 15th, 270 AD to December 6th, 343 AD. Tradition tells us that his parents died while he was still young, leaving him a fortune. What this young man did with his wealth was astounding, regardless of what century one lives in. He used his wealth to bless the less fortunate.

Over time, St. Nicholas developed a reputation of giving gifts to poor children.

There is a tradition that he gave gold to three girls to cover their marriage dowry, lest they prostitute themselves to cover the price. These stories and many more spread all over Europe, making St. Nicholas a popular Christian figure in the Eastern and Western churches.

At some point, St. Nicholas became the Bishop of Myrna (modern-day Turkey). He experienced exile during the systematic persecution of Christians conducted by Emperor Diocletian. Yet, he also lived during the rule of Constantine, the Emperor who endorsed Christianity. Many assume that he would have participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD where Christian bishops thoroughly refuted Arian heretics who denied the deity of Christ. Athanasius is the most famous figure who defended the deity of Christ and wrote On the Incarnation of the Word of God. But other figures were present too, passionately defending the Scriptural and orthodox belief that the Lord Jesus is indeed Deity. It is very possible that one of those people was our beloved St. Nicholas.

Liturgical churches mark December 6th as the feast day for St. Nicholas, the day he passed away to be with the Lord.

Many of the heroes of church history started to fade into the background, thus losing popularity among the lay audience. This especially took place during the Reformation of the 16th century. The birth of many Protestant denominations led to the severing of some of the church’s liturgical roots and traditions. Some have held onto liturgy and tradition. Some have rekindled it. And for others, all that is left is the modern notions of St. Nicholas (“Santa Claus”).

The name “Santa Claus” is more modern. When the Dutch were colonizing America, beginning in the 17th century, they brought with them their traditions about “Sinterklaas.” He was the man who had magical powers and rewarded good children all over the world. Over time, Americans adopted the name but with a slight twist: Santa Claus. Each country has their own distinct names, traditions, and ideas inspired by St. Nicholas, though the historical figure is overshadowed by the modern renditions.

There was not a consensus on the appearance of “Santa Claus,” that is until an advertisement done by Coca-Cola in 1931 popularized (and immortalized) the view of santa that we have today; featuring a white beard, jolly demeanor, and iconic red and white clothing.

We do not have surviving writings directly from St. Nicholas, but his reputation precedes him. Some Christian denominations consider him the patron saint of children, since he was known to bring them gifts. A man of action and benevolence, it is no doubt as to why the humble Santa Claus was inspired by the Christian bishop of the fourth century. At the end of the day, the real St. Nicholas was someone who used his affluence and influence to lead others to the greatest gift of all: Jesus the Messiah.

Regardless of how you feel about talking with your kids about Santa Claus, one thing is certain.

You can never go wrong talking about the real St. Nick, the man who inspires us to live generously toward those in need.

And each of us is called to do the same—use any affluence or influence we might have, use all that God has given us, to point others to the Messiah, to this newborn King. How are you going to steward the good news of Jesus?

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