Uncovering the history behind Santa Claus

Local Church shines light on St. Nicholas

by Andy Hildebrand, Northwood River News Feature Writer

St. Augustine's Church in Rhinelander is hosting a four-day exhibit in its Guild Hall to educate the public about the history of St. Nicholas, the saint who inspired Santa Claus.
Photo: St. Augustine's Church

The familiar and comforting image of the white-haired, jolly old man with a great beard and belly full of jelly is a Christmas symbol known by children around the world.

Santa Claus, the mythical man who delivers presents to every well-behaved child on Christmas Eve, has real roots in history though, and St. Augustine's Church in Rhinelander is hoping to help educate the public on the saint that inspired the jolly old man in the red suit.

The church is holding a free event called "Meet St. Nicholas," featuring games and other activities that will help educate the public about the saint. The event began on Wednesday, but will be open for its final day on Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.

Father Dean Einerson said it's important that the, public gain a better understanding of the man that inspired Santa Claus and he's taking advantage of an impressive resource to make that happen.

"We have an exhibit of pictures, information and lots of activities from the St. Nicholas Center in [Holland], Mich.," he said "The St. Nicholas Center has a tremendous website and they do a really nice job of bringing all kinds of traditions, customs, and a fair amount of silliness and, fun, and a fair amount of seriousness to the topic of St. Nicholas.

Einerson said the message St. Nicholas communicates is very different from the one Santa Claus is usually known for.

"We get Santa Claus from St. Nicholas, but Santa Claus tends to be about buying stuff and more me-centric," he said. "St. Nicholas is more about giving. Their message is that while Santa Claus isn't bad, St. Nicholas is better."

Einerson and members of his church set up stations around the guild hall for people to learn, about St. Nicholas and had many spots for children to take part in fun activities that still teach them about the saint. Einerson said everyone was very excited to help teach the public about the saint.

"I think it's important because he personifies the Christian drive to give," he said "He personifies the Christian drive to make people's lives in this world better. It's not about the pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die stuff. It's about the here and now. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children and there are a number of stories about him rescuing children.

The most famous story is the one where he gives the missing dowries to three girls to save them from slavery or a fate worse than death.

Einerson said St. Nicholas also represents another group of people with an interesting similarity to children.

"He's also the patron saint of sailors," he said. "Just like children, sailors are very vulnerable. They may be these big, strong men, but they're ultimately at the mercy of mother nature. St. Nicholas personifies the people of God together, supporting each other and that's a very good thing."

Among the stations set up at the guild hall were a brass rubbing station, where kids can use crayons to etch a picture of St. Nicholas, and a button-making set where children color their own pictures of St. Nick and then they're pressed into wearable buttons.

There were also St. Nicholas puzzles, displays, handouts and even chocolate gold coins, symbolizing the famous tale of filling shoes with gold.

Einerson said the education is very important, but especially so this time of year.

"I think St. Nicholas does a really good job of taking what's so good about the way we celebrate Christmas with the gifts and spreads it throughout the whole year," he said. "Santa Claus is December, but St. Nicholas is all year. He's also a very accessible saint, which is a good thing. Everything from 'The Night Before Christmas' to Santa Claus makes him a familiar figure, so this program puts a spotlight onto him in a way the church can communicate his real history."

By Andy Hildebrand, the Northwood River News, December 7, 2013.

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