December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day, or the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
Whereas Americans tend to say that Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve to deliver presents, for Europeans Saint Nick brings chocolate and some gifts on December 6.
“The Real Santa is Dead”
One of my American friends once told me that they don’t do Santa Claus, because they like to keep fairy tales out of their faith. That’s a fair point. However, when it comes to Saint Nicholas, we would do well to not lose the legacy of the historical person as we throw out the proverbial bath water.
To that end, my wife and I have always taken the approach with our kids of telling them about the real Saint Nick: the pastor and theologian who loved and cared for the poor in his community.
We explain to them that the reason there are so many Santas in malls and at events is because Saint Nicholas was such a wonderful person that people want to keep his memory and legacy alive, and they do that by dressing up in that red costume with the beard.
This led to a funny episode once, when we were waiting in line to have our picture taken with a mall Santa, and my son – 5 years old at the time – started talking to another kid in line and told him, “Did you know that the real Santa is dead?!” Needless to say, the kid was surprised and concerned to hear this news!
The Real Saint Nick
Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the village of Patara, in what is now southern Turkey, into a wealthy family. That’s right: no North Pole nor reindeer for the real Santa, but palm trees and white sand beaches.
His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in and raised by a local priest. Following Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:21) to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas dedicated his entire inheritance to assisting the sick, needy and suffering.
He became a pastor, and was later made Bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generosity and love for children.
Nicholas suffered persecution and imprisonment for his Christian faith during the Great Persecution (303-311) under Roman emperor Diocletian.
As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea (325), at which he affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy.
Homoousios or Homoiousios
The discussion at the Council of Nicaea was summarized by which word to use in describing Jesus’ nature: whether he was homoousios (of the “same substance” as God) or homoiousios (of a “similar substance” as God).
At the the Council of Nicaea, bishops from all over the world gathered to study the scriptures and address the Arian controversy which advocated for the term homoiousios, denying Jesus’ full deity. This view, which is also held today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was deemed heretical by the council of bishops based on examination of the Scriptures, which teach that Jesus is Immanuel (God with us), and is true God of true God.
The debate got very heated, and at one point Nicholas reportedly got so upset with he deemed to be blasphemy, that he slapped an Arian.
This is the real Saint Nick: Palm trees and white sand beaches, defender of the faith, and slapper of heretics.
Nicholas died in 343 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6.
Where the Tradition of Gift Giving Comes From
Many stories are told about St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. Perhaps the most famous story is that of a poor man who had three daughters of marrying age. Because the man was poor, he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would not be able to find a descent husband and would either be married into further poverty or would have to become slaves.
After Nicholas found out about this family’s situation, he visited the family’s house at night, leaving them three anonymous gifts: bags of gold, which he tossed through an open window while the family was sleeping.
The story goes that they found the gold in their shoes when they awoke, which is the reason for the tradition in Europe that Saint Nicholas leaves chocolate in children’s shoes. Nicholas provided for these poor girls to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.
Rather than trying to make Christmas Santa-free, let’s take back the true story of Saint Nicholas and take hold of this opportunity to talk about a Christian man who loved Jesus, championed good theology, and exemplified Christ through compassion and generosity to the needy.