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December 5, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Habitat for Humanity of Spartanburg, 2270 South Pine Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 591-2221.

More than a century ago, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun. Her request was simple.

Dear Editor: I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon

115 West Ninety-Fifth Street

New York, New York

The editor assigned veteran news reporter Francis Church to respond to the child’s question. A few days later, an unsigned editorial appeared in the paper and has since become the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time.

Because we have a granddaughter named Virginia, Clare and I recently read the New York Sun editorial from 1897. Here is a portion of Church’s response to Virginia. The entire column is readily available on the internet.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

For Clare and me, the newspaper column is a Christmas keepsake.

The closer we get to Christmas, the more I see of Santa. I see his likeness depicted on sweaters, neckties, and billboards.  A favorite Christmas ditty declares that Santa is everywhere.

He sees you when you’re sleeping. 

                                                 He knows when you’re awake. 

     He knows if you’ve been bad or good,

            So be good for goodness’ sake. 

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 known as the Plague of Cyprian took the lives of his wealthy parents. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage, an early Christian writer who witnessed and described the plague. The source of the plague is highly speculative, but suspects have included smallpox, pandemic influenza, or viral hemorrhagic fever like the Ebola virus.

Following the admonition of Jesus to the rich young ruler, “sell what you own and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the poor, the sick, and the suffering. Nicholas had a heart of love for all people, especially for children and all who were needy.  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 that they could not marry. The poor man could have sold his daughters into slavery but refused, vowing, instead, to take responsibility for them for 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 he was 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, cheerful 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.

I followed a tradition learned from my dad and granddad when I was a boy. When my children asked, I always told them that I was Santa Claus.  Telling the truth as a principle of parenting was ingrained in me.  When the topic of Santa Claus came up at our house, I would declare, “You know, I really am Santa Claus.”  Then I would force a deep-voiced laugh, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” 

Oddly enough, my children responded just the way I did when I was their age.  “You’re not Santa Claus!” they would say.  Then they would give all of the reasons why I could not possibly be the jolly old elf.

            “You don’t have a red suit.”

            “You don’t have any reindeer.”

            “You can’t make all of the toys for all of the boys and girls in the world.”

            “You don’t have enough time to deliver all of the Christmas presents.” 

Never once did anyone say, “You’re not fat enough to be Santa Claus.”

When I said that I was Santa Claus, they never believed me, until they were ready. 

For several years, I had the rare privilege of playing the part of Santa Claus. At a Christmas gathering for the church I served, the children presented a Christmas musical program, including a Nativity tableau.  Then, Santa Claus, yours truly, entered the Sanctuary with a hearty, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” 

With children gathered on the floor around his chair, Santa shared the original story of the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story from Luke Chapter 2, as told by Santa, had a remarkable effect on the children.  When Santa bowed his head to pray, they took note. 

Following the program, Santa lingered, allowing the children to crawl upon his knee and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.  The children always looked surprised when Santa Claus asked each child, “Do you know what I want from you this Christmas?” This was probably the first time they had ever heard Santa make a request of them.

Santa explained, “I want you and your family to remember that Christmas is the birthday of Jesus. For his birthday present, I want you to 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 wanted to eliminate the presence of Santa Claus altogether at this annual event believed my participation was 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 was exactly the same. 

I no longer play the part of Santa outside of our own family. But to our granddaughter, Virginia, and to all of our thirteen grandchildren, I say, “Yes, indeed there is a Santa Claus!” Then I share with them the story of Saint Nicholas, a lasting example of love and kindness, especially to children.  

If we can recapture the heart and spirit of the loving man known as St. Nicholas, we will rediscover a part of the real joy of Christmas. Then we will understand that Santa is one of the surprising mysteries of Christmas love.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at

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