Who are you waiting for?

Santa? St. Nicholas? Jesus?

by Beth Miller and David Crumm

This biblical reflection for the second week in Advent may be used individually or for youth or adult classes

Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas
St. Nicholas

Families around the world are waiting for all three!

This week, let's sort out these three world-famous figures associated with Christmas. You probably have family stories about Santa Claus and Jesus—but you may not know much about St. Nicholas.

How do these three figures line up in your life?

Leaders, share your memories and invite others to do so

Here's a memory from David's family

In my home, we never forgot that Christmas is first and foremost Jesus' birthday. We always decorated a beautiful Nativity Scene in our home. We opened Advent calendars, lit Advent wreaths and never missed a Christmas Eve service. But, my family also enjoyed lots of stories about Santa Claus—and all of the American Santa customs, too—right down to a plate of cookies near our Christmas stockings. I didn't even know there was a St. Nicholas with a "feast day" until I was in college.

Here's a memory from Beth's family

By the age of 5, I could recite the entire Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. Christmas always included a birthday cake for Jesus. The importance of the birth of Jesus was central in our family celebrations but Santa Claus provided fun, mischievous secrecy and surprises. Following Christmas Eve services, my brother and I hung our stockings on the mantel, carefully placed cookies on a plate for Santa with carrots for his reindeer and hurried off in an attempt to sleep so Santa could do his magic. I was relieved we had a fireplace and worried how Santa obtained entry to homes without them. I was convinced one year that I heard sleigh bells in the middle of the night! The historical St. Nicholas wasn't consciously a part of our family traditions.

But did you know that both of our families actually were enjoying customs that grew from the real St. Nicholas—and the many centuries of legendary stories that sprouted from his life?

Many of our American Christmas customs sprang from stories and legends about Saint Nicolas, Bishop of Myra in the 3rd Century. Candy canes, hanging stockings, gift-giving in secret in the night—all stem from stories of the actual St. Nicholas. "Santa Claus," the most popular name for this figure in America, is adapted from the German Sankt Niklaus or the Dutch Sinterklaas. Santa Claus evolved as the main character in America’s Christmas story in the early 1800’s. His image underwent "extreme make-overs," including the influence of Clement Moore’s popular poem "The Night Before Christmas."

[If you care to learn more about St. Nicholas, we recommend that you explore a wonderful web site, developed by Carol Myers over many years. Carol also is a Christian educator who has made teaching about St. Nicholas an almost full-time job! Here's her web site: St. Nicholas Center.]

Early Christians would have regarded St. Nicholas as a shepherd caring for his people. His generosity to those in need and in particular his love for children and concern for sailors were remembered around the world. Early Christians shared stories about an exceptional man who faithfully lived his convictions and followed Jesus Christ. He came from a wealthy family and gave his entire inheritance to help the needy, the sick and the suffering.

Think About This Bible Passage

Luke 4:16-21

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour."
And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Do you remember the Bible passage from Mary, Jesus' mother, when she first got the news about what was going to unfold? . . . Read Mary's amazing words. They might remind you of what you've just read from Jesus' visit to Nazareth.

Think About These Words as Well

Santa Claus belongs to childhood; St. Nicholas models for all of life.
Santa Claus, as we know him, developed to boost Christmas sales—the commercial Christmas message;
St. Nicholas told the story of Christ and peace, goodwill toward all—the hope-filled Christmas message.
Santa Claus encourages consumption; St. Nicholas encourages compassion.
Santa Claus appears each year to be seen and heard for a short time;
St. Nicholas is part of the communion of saints, surrounding us always with prayer and example.
Santa Claus flies through the air—from the North Pole;
St. Nicholas walked the earth—caring for those in need.
Santa Claus, for some, replaces the Babe of Bethlehem;
St. Nicholas, for all, points to the Babe of Bethlehem.
Santa Claus isn't bad;
St. Nicholas is just better.
—J. Rosenthal & C. Myers


  1. In what ways are any of these three figures—Santa Claus, St. Nicholas and Jesus—part of your Advent and Christmas customs at home?
  2. What's your favorite Christmas movie or TV special? Millions of families watch Christmas favorites on TV at this time of year! Tell about one show you love to watch again and again—and what it says about one of these three figures.
  3. Do you agree with the comparison of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas? Which ones sound right to you? Which ones do you question?
  4. How do you think Jesus' message is represented by Santa Claus—and by what you've heard about St. Nicholas?
  5. Do you see a connection between Jesus' message in Nazareth—and the song that Mary, his mother, sang when she got the news that she would have a child?

Santa: Norman Price, St Nicholas, December 1916, St Nicholas Center Collection
Saint Nicholas Icon: Mykola Benedyshchuk, St Nicholas Center Collection
Jesus Icon: Mykola Benedyshchuk, Grace Episcopal Church, Holland, Michigan
Rotating images of Santa and Saint Nicholas: St. Nicholas Center

By Beth Miller and David Crumm, a "Bible Here and Now" reflection from ReadtheSpirit. Used by permission.

back to top