Remembering the real St. Nicholas

by Doug Mendenhall

Brown and gold icon
St. Nicholas, Russian icon, 2001
St. Nicholas Center Collection

Reconstructed face
Image: Image Foundry Studios
Anand Kapoor Used by permission

Yes, the commercialization of Christmas has gotten out of hand. And, yes, that dims the message of Christ giving himself to the world.

The proof can be seen in the official website of Santa Claus. Or in the sheer number of official websites that Santa Claus seems to have. You can guess what some of them are.

There’s—"The first and original since 1994"—which features lots of links and a chance to set up a phone call from Santa or buy a lot of green and red stuff. There’s, which lets you "track everything on your wish list, all year long." Also, this site tells parents how to get little Winford a personalized letter from Santa.

And there’s, which is a bit less commercialized and will play a recording of just about any Christmas song you know. There are dozens of others, and is actually up for sale if you want to get in on the rush.

But if you want to leave the Christmas glitz entirely behind, visit, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the man known to millions as a real, gift-giving saint. His is a story worth saving, and certainly one worth retelling to your children.

In the 300s, young Nicholas lost his parents to plague, but instead of filling him with bitterness, he decided to honor their memory by giving away his considerable inheritance to help the needy. Thus was born a legend that grew both during and after his long, adventure-filled life.

Spoiler alert for children who believe St. Nick lives: The site details how in the 1950s, Nicholas’ bones were dug up in Italy to repair his crypt. A professor took careful measurements and even X-rays, so that a few years ago computers were able to recreate the true face of Nicholas—assuming that was him in the tomb. I’ve seen several versions of this Greek man with the busted nose, and none of them resembles the star of the TV specials I grew up on.

But the most interesting portion of this extensive website comes in the "About us" section, where the proprietors explain their interest:

Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the center of his life and ministry. His concern for children and others in need or danger expressed a love for God which points toward Jesus, the source of true caring and compassion. Embracing St. Nicholas customs can help recover the true center of Christmas – the birth of Jesus. Understanding St. Nicholas as the original and true holiday gift-giver also helps shift focus to giving rather than getting, compassion rather than consumption, need rather than greed.

I’m not suggesting we worship the guy, but let’s expand our concern about keeping Christ in Christmas to ensuring that the real Nicholas doesn’t just disappear like a wisp of smoke up a chimney.

By Doug Mendenhall, Abilene Christian University, in the the Huntsville Times, Saturday, December 17, 2011. Used by permission.

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