The Truth About Mr. Claus
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 welcoming lap.

"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 faith.

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 need.

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 they began.

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 beard.

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 sleep.

Sound familiar? That's because when settlers from Holland arrived in New York in the 17th century, they brought Saint Nicholas with them.

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 the season!"

Barbara Curtis is a freelance writer from Petaluma, Calif.
HomeLife, December 1999