A Baptist Take on St. Nicholas

by Terry Mattingly

St Nicholas with bag
Holy Card, England
S. Nicholas Center Collection
The bureaucrats charged with turning Russia into a godless utopia had a December dilemma and a big part of their problem was St. Nicholas.

The early Communists needed to purge Christmas of its Savior, sacraments and beloved symbols, including this patron saint of widows and children. What they needed was a faith-free icon for a safe, secular New Year's season. Digging into pre-Christian Slavic legends they found their superman—Father Frost.

"It's so ironic," said the Rev. James Parker III of Louisville, Kentucky. In order to wrest control of Christmas, "one of the things the Communists had to do was to get people to forget the real St. Nicholas. . . . Here in America we've forgotten all about the real St. Nicholas because he has turned into this Santa Claus guy. It's like we're taking a different route to the same place."

It would not be unusual to hear Eastern Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican clergy voice these sentiments in the days leading to December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, the 4th Century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Parker, however, is associate dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Still, he is convinced it's time for more churches—even Southern Baptist churches—to embrace the real St. Nicholas.

"I have often wondered how a Martian reporter would do a story on Christmas," he wrote, in a Baptist Press commentary. "If one only had the dominant cultural icons of TV, movies, news media and retail stores, my guess is that the Martian viewing audience wouldn't have a clue as to what Christmas was about.

"They might think it had something to do with snowmen or reindeer or retail store sales. And if any particular person rose to the top in the public's conscious awareness, it would be a jolly secular guy at risk for stroke or cardiac arrest who liked to dress in red and let his beard grow."

Rather than whine about what has happened to St. Nicholas, more churches need to "remythologize" this hero of the faith, said Parker.

Little solid historical information is known about Nicholas except that he was born into a wealthy family and, after the early death of his pious parents, he entered a monastery and became a bishop. Some early writers claim he participated in the Council of Nicea and, when theological debate failed, that he punched a heretic who argued that Jesus was not fully divine.

"The mental image of Santa Claus punching out Arius . . . has to fundamentally change the way one would ever see Santa Claus again," said Parker. "While I might not agree with his methods, I certainly admire his passion for Christological orthodoxy."

Nicholas was imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian, tortured and then hailed as a "confessor" because he refused to renounce his faith. He was released under Constantine and died around AD 350.

Another detail in accounts of his life is that Nicholas gave away his inheritance helping the poor. One famous icon shows him taking small bags of gold to parents who could not provide dowries for their daughters, which meant they could not marry. Thus, the bishop would rescue the girls from lives as slaves or prostitutes by dropping gold coins through their windows during the night. These gifts often fell into their stockings, which were hung up to dry.

This unforgettable image was especially popular with children. Through the centuries, this story blended with other legends in other lands. The result was Father Christmas, Pere Noel and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to New York City.

Now Santa is everywhere, the smiling face on one of American culture's most popular exports—the holiday season formerly known as Christmas.

"In the circles that I run in, people can get pretty worked up about things like this," said Parker. "These are they people who keep saying that they want to put Christ back into Christmas. So while they're doing that, why not put the real St. Nicholas back into the picture as well. He was a bishop. He cared for the poor. He was a great Christian leader who defended the faith.

"That's all good, isn't it? Wouldn't it be good to reclaim that?"

The column "A Baptist take on St. Nicholas" by Terry Mattingly was syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service on December 3, 2003. Mattingly teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Used by permission.

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