The person known as Santa to us has developed over many years, coming through a merger/acquisition between Sinterklass and Father Christmas inc. in western Europe after Sinterklass’ fame surged as a result of a book highlighting his exploits in the 19th century.
There was of course the dark period when Sinterklaas was outlawed in the 16th and 17th century mainly because Martin Luther didn’t like his Catholic heritage. Luther encouraged people to celebrate ChristKindle (the Christ Child) instead, but his new term ironically morphed over time into Chris Kringle.
It all started with a holiday named Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) that celebrated a pretty cool guy named Saint Nicholas. Before Nicholas was “saint,” he was born to a wealthy family on the coast of what is modern day turkey. He spent his early life in school and church waking up to celebrate communion before dawn with his family each Sunday.
Unfortunately, his life was not to be all candy canes and wrapping paper. When Nicholas was only eighteen years old his mother and father passed away. Though the young Nicholas took it well, he wanted to spend some time contemplating the direction of his life. He now had a huge inheritance and total independence. After much prayer, he decided to spend his life and money in the same way: however God wanted.
It was at that point that the young man Nicholas began to work in the church. As he was preparing for the ministry, he became aware of a family in his town that was in a precarious position. There was a father who had three daughters who was desperately poor and was not going to be able to provide a dowry for the daughters when they came of age.
This may not seem like the end of the world to us, but in the world of Nicholas in the late 200s this meant a life of prostitution for the man’s daughters. Nicholas would not allow that to happen. So, on the eve of the eldest daughter’s coming of age, Nicholas went out in the middle of the night and tossed a bag filled with a portion of his inheritance through the window to save the life of the eldest daughter. The next morning the family awoke to salvation in the form of a small purse filled with money.
Nicholas repeated the act of kindness with the second daughter. When it came time for the third daughter to receive this extravagant gift, the father decided he would wait up all night to see if he could catch a glimpse of this generous saint. Like clockwork Saint Nicholas walked up to the house and tossed the purse through the window. The father leapt to his feet and ran outside thanking Nicholas profusely. Nicholas gave a simple response. He asked that the man not tell anyone that the gifts came from him.
The rest of his life was a roller coaster that saw him ordained bishop around 35 years of age, imprisoned for being a church leader shortly thereafter, released by Constantine and being one of the bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicea. In spite of his success and eventual fame, he followed the same pattern of generosity throughout his life.
In that area, people would often leave their shoes outside at night. When Saint Nicholas heard of a need in a community he was serving, he would go out under the cover of darkness, take a portion of his own funds, and leave it in the shoes of the family in need.
No wonder within a short amount of time after his death Nicholas was one of the most popular names in the region. No wonder he was one of the most painted saints (second only to the Virgin Mary). No wonder his powerful memory has pushed through the centuries making it all the way to today.
It’s funny though that we have taken this model of selfless, anonymous giving and made him the justification for a particular sort of selfishness that surfaces this time of year. I am hoping to be different this year. I am going to try my best to honor the memory of Saint Nicholas and make this Christmas about reaching out to those in need and helping them without any credit. Imagine the power of Christmas if we all followed Nicholas’ example. Here’s hoping for a happier holiday!
Jeremy Steele has been working in youth ministry for the past fifteen years and now serves as the Next Generation Minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL. He writes for Group Magazine, RETHINK Church and various publications and organizations. You can find a link to all the places he contributes on his website at JeremyWords.com.