The Original Santa

Much consternation is expressed by 21st-Century Christians over the commercialization of Christmas and rightly so. Part of that commercialization results from the culture’s veneration of Santa Clause, the Father Christmas figure who hands out gifts to all the good little boys and girls in the world. Believe it or not, if we would look at the history of Santa, we actually get back to the real meaning of Christmas. 
 
The story begins in the 4th-Century and involves a wealthy businessman and father of three beautiful daughters. He lost his fortune when Pirates raided his merchant ship, leaving him unable to offer a dowry for his daughters. In those days, young ladies from families too poor to provide a dowry faced the danger of being forced into slavery or prostitution. 
 
The father prayed night and day for a miracle. A young Bishop heard of this man’s plight. The Bishop’s name was Nicholas. Nicholas, a wealthy man himself, thanks to an inheritance he received upon the death of his parents. He determined to be an answer to the troubled man’s prayers.
 
Late at night, Nicholas snuck up to the house and dropped a bag of gold in the window. A while later, he returned and dropped another bag of gold in the window for the second daughter. When Nicholas came the third time, the praying father was waiting and gave chase, hoping to thank his benefactor. That’s when he recognized the young Bishop. The father attempted to thank Nicholas, but Nichols directed him to give thanks to God. Nevertheless, word spread about the generosity of the Bishop, who would later be venerated by the Catholic Church as Saint Nick.
 
Saint Nick was also a participant in one of the Church’s most historic church council, the Council of Nicaea. The Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 A.D. by Constantine the Great to address the Arian controversy over the deity and eternality of Christ. The Arians (followers of Arius, an early church theologian and contemporary of Nicholas) taught that the pre-incarnate Christ was a created being and subject of God the Father.
 
History tells that Nicholas fought mightily and vigorously against this heretical doctrine. Some accounts say that Nicholas became so upset with Arius’ claim that Christ was a created being that he actually raised his hand and struck Arius in the face. (This has become my children’s favorite Christmas story. Every year I get asked to tell them about the time Santa smacked Arius for his denial of the deity of Christ, an act that would surely land them on the naughty list.)
 
I cannot think of a better figure to represent Christmas than an ancient Christian Bishop who adamantly held the doctrine of the deity of Christ and the Triune Godhead. That the baby born in the manger in Bethlehem was God in the flesh, come to live and die for His people, is the central message of Christmas. Jesus was God, our creator, who did not stay far off in heaven but drew near to us in love. He died and was raised from the dead so that we could live eternally in relationship with Him for all eternity. 
 
So when did Saint Nick become Santa? Well, shortly after the American Revolution, St. Nicholas was named the patron saint of the city of New York. In 1809, author Washington Irvin published a satirical history of the city of New York that referenced the benevolent jolly old character named St. Nick. Irving’s St. Nick resembled more of a Dutch burgher than the 4th-Century bishop from Turkey. In 1823 a poem was written by Clement Clarke Moore, a Greek and Hebrew professor at a New York seminary, that cemented the jolly old St. Nick in American culture. The original title of the poem was “A Visit from St. Nick,” but we know it today as “The Night Before Christmas.” 
 
As the St. Nick character’s fame spread throughout the 19th-Century, the culture embraced the contracted Dutch translation of St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, which was later Americanized as Santa Clause. Santa’s image developed in the late 19th and 20th Centuries when artist Thomas Nast released a series of drawings in Harper’s Weekly titled “Merry old Santa Clause.” Nast’s drawings depicted the black-belted-white-bearded-fuzzy-red-suit-wearing-jolly-old elf who visits our town every year.
 
Has Santa highjacked the celebration of our Saviors birth? Perhaps, but only because we allow him to. Why not try digging a little into history? We will find the benevolent Christian Bishop named St. Nicholas a wonderful reflection of the benevolence of God in sending His son to save us when all hope was lost.