Santa & St. Nicholas

Discussion Outline

by Brian Kirk

I used this with my youth and it generated some great conversation. This discussion invites youth to look at St. Nicholas, the origin of the Santa legend, and to understand how he is a model for following Christ's radical way of peace and care for others (as opposed to the commercialism of the mall Santa).
St Nicholas with candles
Artist: Mary Kurnick Maass
St. Anthony Messenger Press
Used by permission

Opening Up

Play "Who is Santa?" This is simply just a holiday (and more youth ministry-friendly) version of the game "murder." Sit in a circle. Choose someone to be Rudolph and send him or her out of the room. Select someone in the circle to be Santa. When Rudolph returns, he or she is tasked with figuring out who is Santa. Meanwhile, Santa discretely winks at people in the circle. If you are winked at, you respond by saying "Ho, Ho, Ho!" The round ends when Rudolph catches Santa in the act of winking.


Next, as a larger group, or in smaller groups of 2 or 3, invite the youth to each share their memories of Santa Claus from when they were kids. Where did you see him? What did he look like? What traditions did their families have about Santa Claus?

Digging In

Pass out the "Santa vs. St. Nicholas" handout. Have someone read the description of Santa and invite reflection on the role of Santa in our culture. Have someone read the description of St. Nicholas. Ask: From these descriptions, how would you say our modern-day version of Santa differs from his real-life inspiration? Perhaps create a list of descriptors for the two on a dry erase board or large pad of paper to show a comparison. Ask:
How do you think the story of St. Nicholas got twisted in “Santa?”
Who is in control of the “Santa” image today?
How would you change the Santa image to better make it fit the true-life Nicholas and the Christian message?
What would you have him look like?
What would have him doing?

Taking Action

Read together Luke 4.16-22. In this passage, Jesus declares his mission to the poor and the vulnerable through the words of the Hebrew scriptures. How do you see St. Nicholas taking up some of this radical call of the gospel? What is the challenge in this passage for us in the coming new year? Discuss: Jesus had a radical message about God's love for all people—a love demonstrated not through "getting" but through "giving," not through power but through weakness: the weakness of a baby, of being a servant to others, of loving others, of turning the other cheek. If the mall Santa "preached" this message, how do you think people would react to him. If you preached this message at school, how would your peers react to you?

St. Nicholas followed in Jesus' footsteps, serving others, caring for the poor, welcoming children, working for justice for all people. And he was put in prison for doing so. The world always wants to take the radical and make it tame. To make a St. Nicholas into "Santa Claus" and use him to help sell toys. To make a radical Jesus into a "goody two shoes" who just wants us to be nice people. It's at Christmas time that we need to work harder than ever to reclaim our radical Jesus.

Note: You can find out even more about St. Nicholas here, read an interesting comparison between Santa and Nicholas here, and see some helpful images here. Check out our other Advent/Christmas ideas here.

In another section

Who are you waiting for? Santa? St. Nicholas? Jesus?
Advent biblical reflection for youth or adults

By Brian Kirk, Rethinking Youth Ministry, Union Avenue Christian Church, St. Louis, Missouri. Permission pending.

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