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Saint Nicholas

December 12, 2011
This column is an excerpt from Kirk H. Neely’s new book
Santa Almost Got Caught: Stories for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year.


The closer we get to Christmas, the more I see of Santa Claus. I see his likeness depicted on sweaters, neckties, and billboards. Because Santa is so much a part of the holiday season, maybe we ought to know more about him.

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born late in the third century in the village of Patara, located in what is now Turkey. While Nicholas was still young, an epidemic took the lives of his wealthy parents.

Nicholas had a heart of love for all people, especially the needy and children.  He became a beloved priest, known for his kindness. 

Beyond historical facts, legends about St. Nicholas abound. One recounts that Nicholas heard of the plight of an impoverished man whose three daughters were not eligible for marriage.   Because they had no dowry, the culture dictated no husband. The poor man could have sold his daughters into slavery but refused, vowing, instead, to take responsibility for them the rest of his life.

Moved with compassion, Nicholas rode his white horse past the man’s humble home. He tossed three bags of gold coins into an open window to provide a dowry for each of the three daughters.  One bag of coins fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fireplace to dry. From this act of kindness developed the legend that St. Nicholas comes secretly to fill stockings with gifts.

Nicholas eventually became the Bishop of Myra. He dressed in the typical clothing of a bishop: a red cap and a long, flowing red robe.  Following his death, he became known as St. Nicholas, once canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  The feast day of St. Nicholas is December 6.  St. Nicholas is called Père Noël in France and simply Father Christmas in England.

The legend of St. Nicholas came to the United States through Dutch immigrants.  They referred to him as Sinter Claus, a derivative of St. Nicholas in the Dutch language.  In time, the spelling of Sinter Claus became Santa Claus.  Santa Claus, then, is a continuation of the legendary fourth-century priest who cared about the poor and children.

The priest who became St. Nicholas was actually a thin man, but over the years his image changed. In 1931, the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia, used Santa Claus in some of their advertising at Christmastime.  The company’s graphic artist created an image of a jolly old elf based on Clement Moore’s poem entitled “The Night before Christmas.”  In that poem, Santa is described as smoking a pipe and having a tummy that “shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.”  The commercialized Santa Claus became a plump, jovial symbol of overconsumption.

Several years before her death, my mother gave me a gift, a ceramic figure that depicts Santa Claus kneeling before the baby Jesus in the manger and bowing in prayer. Santa had doffed his cap and folded his hands. I have found that image appropriate because it removes Santa Claus from the center of Christmas.

In the true spirit of Christmas and in the enduring legacy of St. Nicholas, we need to concentrate on those who are needy, those who are poor. We need to recapture the original spirit of St. Nicholas.

For the last sixteen years, I have had the rare privilege of playing the part of Santa Claus. At one Christmas gathering for our church family, the children present a Christmas musical program including a Nativity tableau.  Then, Santa Claus, yours truly, enters our Sanctuary with a hearty, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

With children gathered on the floor around his chair, Santa shares the original story of the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story from Luke Chapter 2, as told by Santa, has a special effect on the children.  When Santa bows his head to pray, they take note.

Following the program, Santa lingers, allowing the children to crawl up on his knee and tell him what they want for Christmas.  The children always look surprised when Santa Claus asks each child, “Do you know what I want from you this Christmas?” This is probably the first time they have ever heard Santa make a request of them.

“I want you and your family to remember that Christmas is the birthday of Jesus. For his birthday present, I want you do something kind for someone else.”

Through the years, I have received occasional comments of disapproval for playing the part of Santa. Some question whether this role is appropriate for a pastor. Others who want to eliminate the presence of Santa Claus altogether at this annual event believe my participation is nothing short of promoting a pagan tradition. I respectfully disagree on both counts.

The original Saint Nicholas was a caring pastor whose heart’s desire was to teach others about the love of God. My motive in playing the part of Santa is exactly the same.

If we can recapture the original intent of the loving man known as St. Nicholas, we will rediscover a part of the real joy of Christmas.

Kirk H. Neely
©December 2011

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