by Tom-Nicholas Costa

Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
Illustration: Elizabeth R. Leydon

December 6

St. Nicholas lived in what is now present-day Turkey around 300 A.D. He became a priest and was chosen as Bishop of the city of Myra at a relatively young age because of his education and good deeds. We do know he was listed as having attended the Council of Nicea and was a keynote speaker during the debates. He was well known in his time for his kindness and generosity, especially to the poor.

One day Nicholas heard of a family of three young girls and their father who were very poor and had no money for the girls' dowries, effectively preventing them from ever getting married to guys with good family connections. Bishop Nicholas went by their house at night in secret and dropped gold coins through the window. The coins supposedly fell into the girls' stockings which were hung up by their beds, and this is supposedly where we got the custom of hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve. At any event, St. Nicholas was linked to the idea of gift-giving, and in many countries in Europe, such as Holland and Spain, children still leave out their shoes on his feastday to be filled with little presents . . . or sticks if they've been bad. If fact our "Santa Claus" actually comes from the Dutch phrase "Sinter Klaas," which is an abbreviated form of "Saint Ni-cho-las."

Until I started doing research, I never realized that St. Nicholas was actually one of the most popular saints during the Middle Ages. The record shows that more churches were named after him during that time than after all the Apostles. Because of this public relations feat, Good St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children, sailors, farmers, bakers, and pawnbrokers.

Then how did we go from a sainted bishop to a red-suited Santa to symbolize the season? A big part of it comes from American advertising over the years, starting with Thomas Nast's Santa Claus cartoons from the Victorian era. And as people became uncomfortable about religion in the marketplace (and talking about saints seemed a little too religious for the average American in the 1800's), the saint faded out and the "right jolly old elf" faded into the picture. Our Santa Claus does represent the spirit of giving, but he's more along the lines of a Disney character: a nice, happy guy we all know and love, but not exactly someone with a proven track record of Christian service.

Which brings us back to our commemoration of St. Nicholas in the church year. In the midst of the holiday season with all its commercials and shopping and excitement, it's good to take a few minutes to remember that love and joy don't magically appear for ourselves and others. It takes personal initiative, and just doesn't happen unless we, like the real St. Nicholas, personally step in and reach out to others. So, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he's actually a saint!

Book cover

From Calling All Saints by Brother Tom-Nicholas Costa, Troitsa Books, 1998. Used by permission.

Short introductions to 40 saints.

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