St. Nicholas Is Coming to Town

by Stephanie Raha
Santa & St Nicolas
Macaron & Mirabelle
Verneuil en Halatte, Lorraine, France

Santa Claus is everywhere.

At least, that’s how it appears when you see him enthroned at malls and department stores or collecting money on street corners for a variety of causes this time of year. No wonder little children pester their parents to pronounce which one is the "real" Santa and who these other guys are. The standard reply usually runs along the lines that these look-alikes are the real Santa’s helpers and that he’s busy at the North Pole getting ready to visit them—and every other child in the world—on Christmas Eve.

Of course, since children manage to spend a large amount of time coming up with questions that are embarrassing or difficult, if not impossible, to answer, this often leads to queries about how he can travel the world in one night dispensing gifts along the way. After muttering something about "It’s magic" or "Because he’s Santa" (which tends to sound a lot like "Because I said so, that’s why!") most parents steer the conversation in some other direction as fast as they can.

There are some moms and dads though who actually try to explain that Santa Claus was originally St. Nicholas. I admire the parents who go this route and try to educate their sons and daughters about religion as well as culture and history. At a time when the spirituality of Christmas is often buried under layers of wrapping paper and tinsel, it’s good to appreciate religious traditions.

Nicholas, a bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey during the early 4th century, was known for his holiness, justice and charity. He especially loved and helped poor people and children. One of the stories most often told about him concerns the three young daughters of a very poor man who had no money for their dowries. Nicholas tossed three bags of gold through the window of their house to insure that they would be able to marry. He was also said to be responsible for several miracles, including saving the lives of several young people. Eventually, these led to Nicholas becoming associated with the care and welfare of youngsters. His fame spread across Europe over the centuries along with various traditions of giving presents to children on his feast day, December 6, or at Christmastime.

In the Netherlands, he was known as Sinterklaas, a contracted form of Sint Nicolaas. And it was from the early Dutch settlers in New York that his popularity began to spread in America, helped by later writers such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (now better known as "The Night Before Christmas"). Artists and illustrators of the 19th and 20th centuries gradually created the persona of the rotund, jolly elf-like Santa Claus we know today.

But one of the most intriguing things I discovered about St. Nicholas was that he’s supposed to have participated in the early Christian church’s Council of Nicaea where he came down firmly on the side of the divinity of Jesus, as expressed in the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God . . . begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father."

Now, at the start of Advent, as we anticipate the joyful Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus, Son of God and of man, we can look at all the Santa Clauses around us and be reminded of a saint, a giver of gifts to children and those in need, but above all, a lover and follower of the Holy Child of Bethlehem.

"St. Nicholas Is Coming to Town," Light One Candle column (December 4, 2006) by Stephanie Raha, The Christophers. Used by permission.

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