Growing up, there was never any doubt that Santa existed. It helped, I suppose, that I spent those early childhood years in Germany, where Nikolaustag was celebrated on December 6 each year. My parents were quick to equate St. Nicholas and Santa Claus (as they should – they are the same person), and thus saved me a great deal of trauma in finding out the “truth.”
Of course people believed in Santa!, child-me thought. I figured all the hoopla in America was just in honor of him. I was about eight when I realized the truth: many children believed in an actual human being (elf?) who lived at the North Pole, had flying reindeer, and delivered presents every Christmas.
Being a highly rational creature, I decided the best thing to do was to make up for lost time. I went into a sort of denial-based belief, and literally CHOSE to believe Santa was real. After all, I had lost a valuable eight years of not putting cookies and milk out for Santa!
This only lasted a year or two. After all, I knew the truth. Now, I’m a married adult and looking to eventually in the future have children…And I’m faced with this dilemma: what do I tell my kids?
It’s a hot button issue in our culture, and things can get personal quickly. But I think if we looked at the actual person of St. Nicholas – whom Santa Claus is derived from – we might just feel a little better about the concept of “Santa” (which just means “Saint,” anyway).
Nicholas of Myra
In the mid-third century, a boy named Nicholas was born into a wealthy, Christian family in Myra, which is on the coast of ancient Lycia. His parents died when he was in his late teens and early twenties, leaving him a great amount of wealth.
Now, most of us would think a young man might spend that money on riotous living; but not Nicholas! He was bent on helping others. One day, he heard the story of an impoverished man with three daughters. This man had no way to provide a dowry for them – with no dowry, they couldn’t marry and would have to stay with him. That in itself wasn’t bad, however he had no money to care for them. Thus, he was stuck in a vicious cycle.
The man felt there was only one option for him: he’d have to sell his daughters into prostitution to provide for them. (I know, it sounds drastic, but for ages that’s how impoverished women had to make their living. There weren’t other jobs out there for them.)
This is where Nicholas comes in. Late at night, he snuck by the man’s house and dropped a bag of gold into the open window. The oldest daughter had enough to marry! But there were still the other two…
So Nicholas made two more trips, doing the same thing. But on the third trip, the father laid in wait, caught him, and thanked him for his loving gifts. 
St. Nicholas was an amazingly godly man. He was persecuted under Diocletian (the same emperor that saw the death of our Santa Lucia last week). Thrown in prison and probably tortured, he retained his faith and came out on the other side – alive!
After Licinius’ edict of religious freedom, and Constantine’s conversion, Nicholas eventually became a bishop. He was constantly standing up for the innocent and fighting injustice, feistily confronting corrupt government officials and slapping heretics at the Council of Nicea. (Apparently, there is enough documentation of other bishops confronting corruption and slapping people that this is not deemed “inherently incredible”).
No one is quite sure when he died, but he was very quickly venerated as a saint. First, it was to sailors, and there are lots of strange stories as to why this is. However, if you know a little history of the area in which he grew up, this is not an incredible thing. The ancient Lycian coast was notorious for harboring pirates. Any Christian going on a sea voyage would seek the blessing and prayers of their pastor before sailing on such dangerous waters. It just makes sense that after his death, they’d continue to seek his protection.
Of course, we know him for his patronage of children. This probably derives from his advocacy for innocents and the daughters of the impoverished man. This idea caught on in the new world…and changed his persona in a myriad of ways.
Santa Claus is a derivative of the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” which was brought by Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam (modern New York). And how did the Dutch get Sinterklaas? Sinter is “Santa,” and Klaas is short for Nikolaus. Thus, our modern “Santa Claus”. (Fun fact: Santa Claus’ other name, Kris Kringle, is a corruption of “Christkind,” another German tradition that celebrates the attributes of the Christ Child.)
But of course, Santa Claus took more than a name change when he came to the new world. Writers such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore re-imagined him in the 1800s and gave us the jolly “elf” we know today. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Importance of Santa Ni-claus
You know, I don’t think my childhood supposition is too far off base. All we do for Santa Claus is in honor of the real Saint Nicholas, even if he looks different. After all, Mary probably didn’t always wear blue, the Magi weren’t kings (nor do we know the number), and there may not have been oxen at the stable. Yet all of those things are in our religious songs and crèche sets. So we shouldn’t let the changed look of Santa Claus get in the way of remembering such a godly man.
However, we shouldn’t honor him as the “spirit of Christmas.” We should remember him as a man who fervently loved Christ and the Gospel.
You see, Nicholas didn’t just give the impoverished daughters frivolities. He gave them gifts they desperately needed. Without those gifts, they would have been sold into a life of slavery and misery. Without Nicholas’ inexpressibly generous gift, they would have met death. For that sort of abuse is like death for a woman (Deut 22:26).
Does it sound familiar? It should. Christ did the same for us. Without his inexpressibly generous gift of dying on the cross, we would still be in a life of slavery to sin. Without Jesus’ lavish sacrifice, we would meet death. Nicholas gifts were like that of Christ – vital for our redemption.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t give fun gifts to people; but what I am saying is that perhaps our ideas of Santa Claus need to line up with the real guy. Maybe the gifts in our stockings should be things we need – in honor of Saint Nick, but also in honor Jesus, who gave us what we ultimately need: Salvation.
But no matter what you decide on the issue of Santa, I hope you do make one Gift an intrinsic part of your Christmas, the One Saint Nicholas celebrated so lavishly: the gift of Jesus.
Some Amazing Sources
If you’d like more information on the real Saint Nicholas, I highly recommend Amazon’s “Saint Nicholas: The Real Story.” It’s informative, Christian-friendly, and goes to great measures to ensure historical veracity. (They even reconstruct his face from his bones! Interestingly, if he walked into a store at Christmas time, people would probably think he was Santa Claus…).
Another wonderful source is StNicholasCenter.org, which they mention in the documentary, and which I checked out briefly. It has more legends, and lots of wonderful links to historical information on the real Saint Nick.
But if those fail, the “VeggieTales: Saint Nicholas” story is AMAZING, and strangely accurate, all the while keeping it family friendly.
 The Origins of Christmas, 110.
 The Origins of Christmas, 111.