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Saint Nicholas: The Original Santa Claus

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

If there’s one thing I have learned about being a parent, it’s that nothing is easy—not even things that are supposed to be. I was reminded of that last December when my nine-year-old daughter, Maddie, suddenly took an interest in the logistics of celebrating Saint Nick.

“Mom, can I ask you a question?” she said, as we were hanging our stockings “by the chimney with care.”
“Sure,” I said.
“We learned in school that you have to be dead to be a saint. So if he’s dead, how does Saint Nick deliver gifts to us? Is it his ghost?”

Wow, theology by a third-grader. Her five-year-old brother, Alex, screamed. I panicked and tried to think of a logical, pastoral and quick answer. How do I explain my way out of this one without blowing the charade for the youngest two? I wondered. Not to mention I wasn’t totally sure whether or not Maddie comprehended the implications of her question.

So I quickly gathered my composure and did what any self-respecting parent does in moments like this—I distracted them and then I got to work researching this saint who inspired, but all too often plays runner-up to Santa Claus.
Santa’s Predecessor

Saint Nicholas lived in Myra, a city in the province of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) during the fourth century. His parents died when he was a teenager and left him with quite a bit of money. Nicholas then went to live with his uncle, who was a priest.

At some point, Nicholas became aware of a man who had three daughters, but no money to pay their dowries so they could be married. On three separate occasions, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold into the girls’ stockings hanging by the fire, thus providing them their dowries. On the third night, the father caught Nicholas delivering the gold. Nicholas asked the father not to tell anyone about what he had done.

Eventually, Nicholas became the bishop of Myra. He continued performing generous acts, and had a special affinity for children, sailors and those who were falsely accused.

What about those traditions always associated with Saint Nick, such as oranges and candy canes? Well, the oranges are an adaptation of the bag of gold that Nicholas threw into the young women’s stockings. And, according to many stories, candy canes are supposed to represent crosiers, or bishop’s staffs, as bishops are the shepherds for God’s people.

Over time, as word of Saint Nicholas’s charity and giving spread, the concept of secretly giving gifts to others grew and took on a life of its own. As people traveled to new lands, they took the concept of the saintly gift-giver with them. Over time, Saint Nicholas transformed into our modern-day Santa Claus.

Ways to Celebrate Saint Nick

With all the information I had collected, I sat the kids down and regaled them with the tales of Saint Nicholas. We talked about ways to live out and honor his example.

Later that evening, as I tucked them into bed and made my way downstairs to fill up their stockings, I said a small prayer of thanks to Saint Nicholas for his giving spirit and loving example. And then I added a small prayer of thanks that my kids seemed to have forgotten about the ghosts of long-passed saints entering our home to deliver gifts.

Here are a few ideas to help your family celebrate this generous saint’s feast on the evening before December 6:
Extend the celebration. Saint Nicholas wanted his gift-giving to be done in secret—and not to last just one night. Make an effort to surprise members of your family with special gifts or thoughtful acts throughout the holiday season—just to brighten their day.

Show Saint  Nick some love. Make as big a deal about Saint Nick as you do Santa Claus. Talk about the differences and similarities between the two.

For Teens: In the Spirit of Saint Nick

Throughout his life, Saint Nicholas spent a great deal of time and effort caring for those in need. We can emulate that example in our own lives. And while we should remember to help those in need throughout the year, the holidays seem to be a perfect time to show others that we care.
Gather a group of your friends and come up with a project with which you can demonstrate caring for others. For instance, make blankets for children at a local hospital. (You can find easy instructions for making no-sew fleece blankets on the Internet.) Or hold a Christmas caroling party and collect donations for a local charity. The ideas are endless.

For Kids: Play Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas wanted his gift-giving to be done in secret. Try to be like Saint Nick and ask an adult to help you prepare small stockings to surprise friends or family members. Try to include items that will remind the person of Saint Nick, such as candy canes, oranges or even a small bag of gold-covered chocolate coins. Try to deliver them without being caught!