What is the Amazing True Story of Santa Claus?
St. Nicholas was born during the third century. His parents were wealthy, and raised him to be a Christian. He used his entire inheritance to assist those as Christ would – the needy, the sick, and the suffering. St. Nicholas became Bishop of Myra, (in modern day Turkey) while a young man and was known for his generosity to those in need and his love for children.
St. Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. After he was finally released, St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. St. Nicholas died December 6, 343 and was buried in his Cathedral. A unique relic, called manna (which is actually transparent clear water), formed in his grave and is formally extracted each year since 1980 to be dispersed to the faithful. It heals all kinds of sickness. His feast day is December 6, the anniversary of his death.
Legends of St. Nicholas
There are numerous legends surrounding St. Nicholas’ generosity. In the most famous, St. Nicholas heard that a person falling into poverty intended to abandon his daughters to a life of sin. Under the cloak of darkness, St. Nicholas flung a bag of gold into the house. The father was able to give a dowry to his oldest daughter. Later St. Nicholas did the same for the second daughter. On the trip for the third daughter, the father caught St. Nicholas. The bags of gold are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This is why children hang stockings or put out shoes to await gifts from Saint Nicholas.
In another legend, the townspeople of Myra were celebrating St. Nicholas on the eve of his feast day when a band of pirates stole treasures from the Church of St. Nicholas. As they were leaving town, they stole a young boy name Basilios to be a slave and be the ruler’s personal cupbearer. For an entire year, Basilios brought the king wine in a beautiful golden cup. While Basilios was serving the king on St. Nicholas’ feast day, he was whisked up and away. St. Nicholas appeared to the boy, blessed him, and set him down in his home in Myra.
In another legend, a young St. Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, he sought to experience more fully Jesus’ life, passion, and resurrection. While he was returning home by sea, a mighty storm threatened a ship wreck. When St. Nicholas prayed, the storm suddenly calmed leaving the sailors in amazement, and sparing all of their lives. For this reason, St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers.
Origin of Santa Claus
St. Nicholas is also the origin of what many call “Santa Claus” today. The first Europeans to arrive in the New World brought their knowledge of St. Nicholas with them. Christopher Columbus even named a port in Haiti for him on December 6, 1492. Jacksonville, Florida was originally named St. Nicholas Ferry by the Spaniards. Unfortunately, the Protestant Reformation took a dim view of saints and tried to stamp out long-held St. Nicholas traditions. However, because the common people loved St. Nicholas so much, his traditions survived. In 1821, a book entitled Sante Clause In Sleigh depicted St. Nicholas as a man who arrived from the North with a sleigh and flying reindeer. The book’s illustrations shifted the imagery away from a saintly bishop and marked Santa Claus’ appearance as December 25, not December 6. In 1823, the popular poem we know today as the “Night Before Christmas” was originally published as “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
Ways to Celebrate His Feast Day
To celebrate St. Nicholas day, either stockings are hung or shoes are set before the fireplace. This is because in the story of St. Nicholas helping by tossing the dowry money through the window, it landed in a stocking set before the fire to dry.
In many countries, St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6 is the primary gift giving day. Shoes and stockings are left overnight for St. Nicholas to fill with small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies. These gifts are meant to be shared, not kept for oneself.
Orange or tangerines are also traditional St. Nicholas gifts as the gold dowry money is usually shown as gold balls. Candy canes are really candy croziers, which is one of St. Nicholas’ symbols. As a bishop, he carried a staff (hooked like a shepherd’s crook) to remind us he is a shepherd who tends his people. The stockings or shoe are filled while children are sleeping.
St. Nicholas did his gift giving secretly as he wanted those he helped to give thanks to God, not to him. St. Nicholas’ concern for the needy helped form the generosity which is the hallmark of our “Christmas season” as Christians. I encourage you to revive these beautiful traditions and celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas with your children in your homes. The Feast falls on December 6th (early Advent) and offers a unique opportunity to focus our families’ Christmas preparations on Christ rather than simply our material desires. The simplicity of the traditional gifts make them natural items to be shared in direct contrast to the many other items we receive on Christmas. Placing shoes in a prominent place and receiving a small gift which can be shared is a fun way for our children to enter into the story of St. Nicholas, so that hopefully someday they may take on his wonderful generosity.