It’s that time of year when complete strangers ask children what they want a dead guy to bring them when he sneaks into their house in the middle of the night. And it’s also a time when Christian parents struggle to help their children answer such people in a way that is both accurate and appropriate. Amidst the cultural clutter that surrounds the legend of Santa Claus, the story of St. Nicholas has been largely lost.
The Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches have their separate lists of saints, but one man whom they both acknowledge is St. Nicholas of Myra (aka, St. Nick or the man who would be Santa Claus).
Nicholas was born to Greek parents in Asia Minor in the late-third century. Growing up in a middle class home, Nicholas received a solid Greek education. He may well have read classics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Under unknown circumsta
nces (plague?), Nicholas lost both of his parents as a teenager and inherited significant wealth. But rather than squandering it, he was apparently moved to share his wealth with others. And so due to a number of incidents in which Nicholas aided those in financial difficulties, he became associated with the giving of gifts and especially gifts to children.
As an adult, Nicholas became a bishop or pastor in the coastal city of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). A number of legends have grown up around his life. But by many accounts Nicholas took part in the Council of Nicaea in which the doctrine of Christ’s full deity was defended against the teachings of Arianism, and by “took part” I mean there’s even a legend that Nicholas punched the famous heretic Arius at the council (this legend, incidentally, has given rise to one of my favorite non-traditional depictions of Santa Claus).
Although many details about Nicholas’s life are unknown and some of what is “known” about him borders on the mythical, Nicholas was by all accounts a generous early church leader and a faithful defender of orthodoxy, and so there’s really no reason for Christians to knock the historical “St. Nick”. Though, as Ben Edwards pointed out a while back, we should tell our children the truth about Santa Claus, and perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to also tell them about the real St. Nicholas who lived some 1,700 years ago.