Before There Was Santa

The excitement of Christmas is right around the corner. Shoppers fill the malls while jolly men dressed in red suits with a white beard chuckle, “Ho Ho Ho,” to the smiling children. Oh, there’s nothing better than good cheer this time of the year!

Santa Claus, a commercialized entity in the United States, was a mere Coca-Cola sketch in 1931, which grew into a life of its own. But, before there was Santa, the true patron saint of children, St. Nicholas, filled the shoes (quite literally). Yes, this is the true story that links the roots of Santa Claus and a man named Nicholas.

Nicholas was born about 280 A.D. in the village of Patara on the southwest coast of Turkey. A devout Christian, he was left with a large inheritance when his wealthy parents died in an epidemic. He gave all of his money to the needy, sick, and those in distress. A servant of God, they blessed him with the title of Bishop Nicholas at a young age. His heart, though, remained with children.

One would not think such an honorable man (and the first Santa) could be a victim of Christian persecution, but this event tells us otherwise. In 325 A.D., Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea meeting, and the fundamentals of Christian faith was the topic of discussion. He challenged a lecturer, named Arius, on the beliefs of Orthodox Christianity. An argument ensued, and Nicholas slapped Arius in front of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Council put Nicholas in chains, stripped him of his leadership position, and jailed him for assault.

Nicholas prayed for forgiveness and humility. He hoped God would forgive him. A recall of the story claims the Lord visited him in prison one night, removed his chains, and returned his garments. The next morning, prison guards discovered him praying and dressed in his bishop attire. The Emperor received word of the mysterious event and ordered Nicholas to be released – it was divine intervention. Nicholas rejoined the Council of Nicea and helped to create the Orthodox Christian religion as we know it today.

Many stories are told of Nicholas’ good deeds through the centuries, and they portray him as a gift-giver. But how did he receive this name? The following incident forever links him to Christmas stockings…

A poor man had three daughters whom he wanted to marry off to prospective husbands. In those days, however, a woman’s father offered a dowry for marriage. The larger the payment, the better the chance of finding a husband. Having no money, he knew his daughters would soon be sold into slavery.

Nicholas learned of the family’s harrowing story. On three different occasions, bags of gold balls were tossed through an open window of the poor man’s house, and they landed inside the stockings and shoes, drying near a fire. Today, three gold balls are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. Do you recognize the connection to Christmas stockings?

You may also ask how St. Nicholas was linked to Christmas, so I will tell you. After his death in 343 A.D., many miracles involving children occurred, and they were all contributed to St. Nicholas. Small gifts and candy silently appeared for poor children on the holiday celebration, Feast of St. Nicholas, which is celebrated on December 5 and/or 6. Are the stories true? I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Image courtesy of Pinterest

Most European countries still celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas today. It is a day about giving and recognizing those who contribute to society. Good children receive treats or small gifts in their shoes. The Europeans teach us that to celebrate Christmas, large amounts of gifts unnecessary – keep it simple to retain the real reason for the season.

Over the centuries, St. Nicholas transformed into another similar figure called Santa Claus. Known as Sinterklaas in Holland, their customs entered the United States and the fat man in a red suit, was soon born. But, let us not forget the roots of St. Nicholas, who came before there was Santa. Compassion, charity, and giving the greatest gift of all – himself – took center stage. This should be the image of Christmas!


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