Is there anything quite as tacky as making Santa Claus kneel before the manger? Is this a weak attempt at baptizing secular Christmas traditions? Or is it a subtle slam at secluarism (Ha, Ha! Your Santa bows to our Savior!”)? I’m not sure, but either way it seems a bit off.

But then again, maybe not.

If you know anything about the real Santa Claus, the man who has become the namesake for all that seems kitschy and consumerist about Christmas, I imagine he’d appreciate the chance to worship the little babe in the straw.

So who exactly was St. Nicholas? The unsatisfying answer is that nobody knows for sure.  To quote one Nicholas scholar “We can grant a bishop of that name who had a great impact on his homeland.  We can also accept December 6 as the day of his death and burial.  These are all the facts we can hold to.  Further we cannot go.” (Gustav Anrich quoted by Charles W. Jones in Saint Nicholas of Bari, Myra, and Manhattan).

According to the best estimates, Nicholas, was born around 280 AD in Patara, in Asia Minor.  He later became bishop of Myra in modern day Turkey. Nicholas, it seems, died about 343 on or near December 6.  That is the date of his Feast Day in the Catholic church.

There is no record of his existence attested in any document until the 6th century.  By that time Nicholas, whoever he had been, was already famous.  The emperor Justinian dedicated a church to him in Constantinople.  Initially, Nicholas was most well known in the East (he is a hierarch in the Eastern Orthodox Church).  But by 900, a Greek wrote “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him.  Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor.  All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection.”  In 1087, Italian sailors stole his supposed relics and took them from Myra to Bari, Italy.  This greatly increased his popularity in Europe and made Bari one of the most crowded pilgrimage sites.  It is said that Nicholas was represented by medieval artists more than any other saint except Mary.

The Man and the Myth

Why was Nicholas so famous?  Well, it’s impossible to tell fact from fiction, but this is some of the legend of St. Nicholas:

He was reputed to be a wonder-worker who brought children back to life, destroyed pagan temples, saved sailors from death at sea, and as an infant nursed only two days a week and fasted the other five days.

Moving from plain legend to possible history, Nicholas was honored for enduring persecution. It is said that he was imprisoned during the Empire wide persecution under Diocletian and Maximian. Upon his release and return, the people flocked around him “Nicholas! Confessor! Saint Nicholas has come home!”

Nicholas was also hailed as a defender of orthodoxy. Later sources claim he was in attendance at the council of Nicea. According to tradition, he was a staunch opponent of Arianism. Writing five centuries after his death, one biographer wrote “Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison.” Stories of his courage abound, one claiming that Nicholas traveled to Nicea and, upon arrival, promptly slapped Arius in the face. As the story goes, the rest of the council was shocked and appalled, so much so that they were going to remove Nicholas from his bishopric, that is until Jesus and Mary appeared to defend him. According to the same legend, this apparition changed the minds of the  delegates who quickly recanted of their outrage.

As you might have guessed, Nicholas was also revered for being a generous gift giver. Born into a wealth family, he inherited the fortune when his parents died.  Apparently he gave his vast fortune away.  The most famous story involved three girls who were so destitute that they were going to be forced into a life of prostitution.  But Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the window as dowries for the young woman.

Over time, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of nations like Russia and Greece, cities like Fribourg and Moscow, and of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers (the three gold balls hung outside pawn shops are symbolic of the three bags of gold).

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 as we explore how a Turkish Bishop became an American icon.

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18 thoughts on “Santa Claus with the Baby in Bethlehem (Part 1)”

  1. James Taylor says:

    Thanks for this; good to have some of the history of Saint Nicholas.

    A friend posted a related piece today which has some good thoughts on ‘the gospel of Santa Claus’ – check it out:

  2. Paul C says:

    His history is about as credible as that of Zeus or Hercules. Just the sort of stuff that would pass muster during the Dark Ages… The Catholic Church is notorious for making idols out of simple individuals who would shudder at the thought of people worshiping and venerating them. Christmas is no more than a cash-grab, sad to say.

  3. truthmatters says:

    Santa and baby Jesus—well now… isn’t this just precious.

  4. Richard Lee says:

    Thanks for the history. Interesting stuff.

    “as an infant nursed only two days a week and fasted the other five days” – As a brand new father of a six week old baby boy, I couldn’t help but laugh when I read that. My wife will get a kick out of this.

  5. John says:

    Actually, the three gold balls are from the family crest of the House of Medici, who controlled the largest bank in Europe for a spell and also invented certain money practices, including pawn shops and, by some accounts, loansharking and money laundering as well.

  6. Ethan Sayler says:

    On the nursing thing, hilarious. How could they possibly know that? Did his mom write it down, just in case one day he became a saint? Did he, in his later years as a bishop, suddenly recall his days as a nursing infant and his great piety. Good to know we are saints becuase of what God has done for us in Christ our Lord, not becuase of our nursing habits.

  7. Plover says:

    @John’s comment beginning “Actually…”

    I would not be so quick to dismiss the idea of the three gold spheres originally symbolizing Nicholas. First of all, the Medici symbol (AFAIK) includes many more spheres than three, and always has. On the other hand, even if you grant that the pawn broker symbol came somehow from the Medici symbol, Nicholas was venerated (and associated with money) in Europe long before the Medicis came to power, and the Medicis may have originally taken their symbol from Nicholas!

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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