Santa is nearly inescapable this time of year. He’s in the mall. He’s giving away Coca-Cola and selling cars on TV. And he is even on street corners collecting money for the Salvation Army. Santa is really busy!
Santa also seems to find himself in the midst of cultural collision as secularists seek to parcel out how Christmas can be celebrated without the “Christ” part in the mix, and for many, Santa Claus is a figure who has come to be considered safely secular. Even some Christians feel that the idea of Santa smacks against the real meaning of Christmas inadvertently shifting the focus away from the coming of the Christ child. But is Santa safe for secularists? Where did Santa come from anyway? Why do we call him “Old Saint Nick”? Did someone come up with the story of Santa just to distract people from the true reason for the season? And what should parents say about Santa?
Saint Nick: The Giver
To answer these questions, you have to travel back in time 1,700 years to a small city called Patara, in modern day Turkey, where Nicholas was born.
This jolly figure is not just a manufactured distraction from the true meaning of Christmas or a simply secularly figment of the festive imagination.
This part of the world was still under the rule of the Roman Empire. Though it is certainly true that the historical record gets a little fuzzy about the details of his life, and legends abound from what we can tell, when Nicholas’ wealthy Jesus-loving-parents died, leaving him their estate, he kept none of it. Instead, he gave it away to those in need.
In perhaps the most famous display of his generosity, he gave bags of gold to three young girls about to be sold into prostitution because they lacked the money to pay their wedding dowry. In his giving to the poor, he was known to have used his inheritance to care for children, and at times he left socks filled with gifts.
Saint Nick: The Imprisoned Pastor & Doctrine Defender
Along with his gift giving, there were reports of miracles, and ultimately Nicholas was chosen to be the bishop of Myra. As severe Christian persecution swept across the Roman Empire, under Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius, Nicholas was imprisoned for his preaching.
Saint Nick loved Jesus, cared for the poor, served the church, preached the Gospel, suffered for his faith and defended sound doctrine.
He was later released, and one of his biographers wrote that after his time behind bars, he battled heretical attacks against the deity of Christ. It was even said that he showed up for the early church Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Most people don’t think of Santa in that light, but that is what we can surmise from church history.
The truth is that the mythical character in the red velvet suit with shiny gold buttons springs from historical snippets pieced together from the life of an actual person; a person who loved Jesus, cared for the poor, served the church, preached the Gospel, suffered for his faith and defended sound doctrine. This jolly figure is not just a manufactured distraction from the true meaning of Christmas or a simply secularly figment of the festive imagination. While parents will no doubt differ on how they choose to include Santa in their Christmas celebrations, they can certainly commend the legacy of a godly man who used his life to point people to Jesus.