|Where did he come from, this jolly man in a soft
red suit, with flowing white beard?
Sure, we all know he's not real. But for someone who isn't
real, he's definitely everywhere you look this time of year.
You see his likeness on wrapping paper and rooftops, in store
windows and TV ads. You hear songs about him on the radio and
at your neighbor's house.
In the shopping malls, little children - on best behavior -
wait patiently to have their picturers taken on his wide and
"Hi Santa," they smile when it's finally their turn.
It won't matter if this year's model looks a little different
from last year's. If they've been taught that Santa is real,
they'll go to any lengths to believe.
On the other hand, many families will have nothing to do with
Santa at all. They consider him at best a distraction, at worst
an affront to the truth of Christmas. And they certainly have
good cause to feel that way.
It seems that year after year we see more of Santa and less
of Jesus in our public celebration of Christmas. Each winter
we grit our teeth as we read of legal challenges to nativity
scenes at city halls and carols at public schools. Some school
districts have even declared war on the word itself- Christmas.
After all, that might remind people why it all began.
Perhaps that's why Santa has hit the big time. People long
for tradition and custom, and the jolly one is around to fill
the void. And, boy, can he produce the profits! Companies make
big bucks from his image - that's why we see it everywhere.
Still, Santa does hold a special place in the hearts of many
people. And so we wonder. Humanism and commercialism aside,
what is the truth about Santa Claus? Where did he come from?
How did we get him here?
The truth is there once was a person whose generosity was so
unique that he became a legend. Here's what we know about him.
Nicholas was born in the small town of Patara,
Asia Minor, in A.D. 280. His parents were wealthy people of
As a child, Nicholas was devoted to God. It is said that he
fasted every Wednesday and every Friday.
His mother and father died while Nicholas was still quite young.
From that time forward, he dedicated his life to Christian service.
Many tales are told of his generosity. One famous painting
shows him secretly leaving a bar of gold in the home of a poor
man with three daughters. In those days, women needed dowries
to offer their husbands; otherwise they remained unmarried.
Nicholas' gift made it possible for these three maidens to wed.
Much of his generosity was like that - humble good deeds done
in secret. It is said that he begged on behalf of the poor.
He sometimes disguised himself to bring presents to those in
His goodness did not go unrecognized. The citizens of Myra
elected him bishop. During the persecutions, he was captured,
tortured and imprisoned. He was finally released when Constantine
became emperor of Rome. From that time until his death in A.D.
314, Nicholas continued to give and to serve.
You may be wondering how we got from the very real Saint Nicholas
(because he was eventually called a saint) to the Santa Claus
we know today. This is a good example of how stories change
over time, often so much that it becomes hard to remember how
In Holland, a custom grew of celebrating December 5, the eve
of Saint Nicholas' birthday Even today, Dutch families have
parties, give gifts and feast on sweets, awaiting a visit from
Saint Nicholas. He comes dressed as a bishop in red velvet robes
and miter (a bishop's pointed hat), and he has a long white
Before going to bed that night, children leave their shoes
by the fireplace. They hope Saint Nicholas will return, slide
down the chimney, and fill the shoes with goodies while they
Sound familiar? That's because when settlers from Holland arrived
in New York in the 17th century, they brought Saint Nicholas
Today commercial exploitation of the Santa Claus image has
made many Christians uncomfortable enough to wish he'd disappear.
They feel strongly that our customs about Santa Claus take away
from the real meaning of Christmas.
Perhaps the Dutch have the right idea. They keep the gift giving
and merriment of Saint Nicholas' Eve separate from the celebration
of Christ's birth. Christmas is a day for church and carols,
family and feasting.
In America, at some point, we began to mix it all together.
But we can keep from getting mixed up ourselves.
We don't need to wipe out Santa Claus. We just need to remember
who he was - a man who served so well and gave so much that
people never forgot him. A man who lived a Christlike life,
thinking of others more than himself.
He serves only as a reminder of the greatest gift of all God's
only Son. Knowing his story, what do you think? Wouldn't Saint
Nicholas be the first to say, "Jesus is the reason for
Barbara Curtis is a
freelance writer from Petaluma, Calif.
HomeLife, December 1999