Christmas is almost here, and that means there’s plenty of talk about jolly old Saint Nicholas.
You may have already taken your children to the local mall to take a picture with Santa Claus or told them stories about how he comes to give presents to all the good little boys and girls. Perhaps you’re getting ready to leave out milk and cookies. Or maybe your children don’t believe in Santa Claus at all.
But however you celebrate, Santa Claus has been a key part of the Christmas season throughout the better part of the last few centuries. Yet many of us probably don’t know that much about the real life man who inspired the mythical character of Santa.
So here are some interesting facts about the life and legacy of the real Saint Nicholas, and why he’s an important figure for Christians to remember.
Saint Nicholas was an important early church leader.
Nicholas was born in the late third century AD in what is now modern day Turkey. We don’t know much about his life, but we do know that he served as the bishop of Myra.
During his younger years, Nicholas was likely persecuted and imprisoned for his faith by the Roman government. But when Constantine came to power, Nicholas rose to a place of influence not only within the Church but within the empire as well. He was even in attendance at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.
While at that Council, Church leaders discussed a number of important topics, including the question of which New Testament writings were authoritative scripture. But Nicholas’ biggest moment during the Council revolved around a dispute about how to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.
Leading the charge for what would be determined as a heretical view was a man named Arius. As the story goes, Nicholas grew more and more agitated the longer Arius argued for his view. And at one point, Nicholas simply boiled over with rage. He leapt up from his seat, ran across the meeting room, and struck Arius across the face.
That’s right. Jolly old Saint Nick punched a dude out.
Since striking someone in the presence of the Emperor was apparently a criminal offense, this little outburst cost Nicholas some jail time. Nicholas immediately regretted his actions, though he would never concede his theological stance. And the Council of Nicaea’s decision ended up agreeing with him.
Saint Nicholas’ generosity was legendary.
Apart from getting into fist fights with heretics, Nicholas was well known for his acts of generosity. In fact, his altruism was nothing short of legendary.
In one story, Nicholas saves three young girls from being sold into servitude. Their father could not afford to pay their wedding dowries and felt it was his only choice. That is, until Nicholas came to their house in the middle of the night and left them a bag of money. He is also believed to have saved three young men from being wrongfully imprisoned.
In another story, Nicholas happened upon sailors whose ship had run aground and helped them get back into deeper water. This encounter became so famous, that sailors would often cry out for Saint Nicholas’ help when they were in trouble–even if they knew he was nowhere near them. This is how he became the patron saint to sailors.
These tales certainly exist in the realm of legend, and the details have been embellished (or, in some cases, completely fabricated) through the centuries. But I believe they hold a kernel of truth as to the type of man Nicholas was. He was known as a man who always looked to fulfill the needs of others.
Saint Nicholas’ popularity as a venerated saint endures.
Saint Nicholas was officially canonized in the Roman Catholic tradition in the tenth century, though he had been recognized as a saint long before then.
After the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, veneration of saints was generally discouraged. And so the popularity of many venerated saints waned considerably. But Saint Nicholas continued to be highly popular throughout the centuries, especially in Holland. They referred to him in Dutch as Sinterklaas, which is where we eventually got the English name Santa Claus.
Nevertheless, Saint Nicholas didn’t become widely popular in America until 1823 when a New Yorker named Clement Clark Moore authored a poem called A Visit From St. Nicholas. We now know it as The Night Before Christmas.
Given the commercial popularity of the poem, retail companies increasingly began using Santa Claus in their advertising. In the 1920s, Coca-Cola made Santa their spokesperson during the holidays. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Why Christians Should Care
It’s certainly interesting to journey along the historical moments that turned a fourth century bishop from Turkey into a benevolent giver of gifts from the North Pole. But Saint Nicholas undoubtedly lived to make an impact for Jesus beyond commercialized holiday celebrations.
So now may be a good time to reflect on the real-life legacy that Nicholas left on the generations immediately following his life and death. Here are 3 important takeaways as we think about the impact that Saint Nicholas made on the world.
(1) Compassion and conviction can exist alongside one another.
As you look at the legendary events of Nicholas’ life, two disparate images begin to emerge. On the one hand, he’s the kind of guy who might find himself in fisticuffs over a theological dispute. But on the other hand, he was known as being such a kindhearted man that people would attribute literal miracles to him in stories they told their children.
What this illustrates is that you don’t have to be passionate about truth or kindness. Christians are called to be entirely committed to both. You are called to sacrifice your comfort, time, and resources for the benefit of others. And you are also called to passionately defend truth–though, I’m not encouraging physical altercations if someone disagrees with you.
Too often, Christians are known for one or the other. Some are known as incredibly knowledgeable studiers of scripture, but don’t provide a very warm presence. Others are filled with compassion, but have little ability to articulate the truth of who Jesus is.
The way of Jesus is the way of knowledge and compassion. Jesus came full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
(2) You can build a legacy on the foundation of kindness.
We live in a society driven by success. And that success always seems quantifiable.
How big is your salary?
How many followers do you have?
Where is your position on the org chart?
What catalog of awards and achievements do you have to show for your efforts?
Wanting to be successful isn’t a sinful desire to have. In fact, we’re called to be stewards of the gifts God has given us–our talents, passion, abilities, and opportunities.
But in order to build a lasting legacy, you need to make sure it is established on a foundation of kindness, grace, and generosity. At the end of the day, no one will care how much money you made or the achievements you attained.
But they will care about how you made them feel. And those are the stories they will recount to their children about you.
At the end of the day, no one will care how much money you made or the achievements you attained. But they will care about how you made them feel. And those are the stories they will recount to their children about you. Click To Tweet
(3) Grace is not coercive.
The legend of Santa Claus is often used as a clever way to manage our children’s behavior. We tell them that if they are good little boys and girls, he will bring them the gifts they long to receive. And if they’re bad or misbehaved, he will bring them only a lump of coal.
This kind of messaging runs counter to the good news about Jesus. God’s grace and kindness are given freely to those who don’t deserve it. That’s the whole point.
What’s more is that a transactional understanding of grace also runs counter to the legacy that the real Saint Nicholas actually left. Nicholas was known for helping those who couldn’t help themselves.
That’s what Jesus has done for us. And it’s what we are called to do for others. And as his power works through us, we are able to do just that, so that we can truly experience what he meant when he said that “it is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).
May God bless you with his abundant grace this Christmas, and always.