| The following is written by my friend and pastor, Rev. Nathan Carlson. |
“Jolly Old St. Nicholas, lend your ear this way…” is the beginning of a traditional Christmas song. For most of the Western World, especially in the United States, the enduring image of Santa Claus, (i.e., St. Nicholas), is of a rotund, jolly older man with a white beard and a mop of hair under a red cap. But who, really, is St. Nicholas and what makes him the “patron saint” of Christmas?
The real St. Nicholas is far more interesting than a kindly old man who flies a magic sled via reindeer power around the world in one night delivering presents to all the “good little girls and boys.” The real character of St. Nicholas is a 4th century bishop likely (though debated hotly in academic circles) to have been present at the Council of Nicaea where the doctrine of Trinitarianism was officially ratified as the theological stance of the church.
It is said, though widely discredited, that during this council the real St. Nick got up and slapped another attendee who argued in favor of a position known as Arianism. Arianism is a an ancient, officially heretical, belief that Jesus is wholly human and not divine. Whereas Trinitarianism identifies Jesus Christ as part of the God head both human and divine. St. Nicholas of Myra, quite obviously based on these stories, passionately defended the stance of Jesus’ divinity. Thus, his link with Jesus, and specifically the kind of birth was Jesus’ birth, entered the cultural ethos. You’ll find many icons in the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas slapping a defender of Arianism or the offending Bishop Arius himself.
As to the gift giving, most of us have heard the traditional stories of St. Nicholas the cobbler or gift giver who either crafted shoes for children in local orphanages or who would drop small trinkets in their shoes. This tradition seeped into the celebrations of Christ’s birth leading up to the spread of Christianity in many places. Far from the only person who ever did this, he merely inspired countless followers to do the same – namely to give good gifts to the children who were poor or in difficult situations in life.
The real St. Nicholas is very likely buried in Bari near Napoli. Bones found in the crypt, reported to be his, date back to the 4th century and show signs consistent with reports of his life. So, if we are to take anything from the real Santa Claus, let it be of the importance of Emmanuel, God with us in the person of Jesus Christ, and the joy of sharing love with others especially those most in need.
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