I am Catholic and attended Mass this morning as a good Catholic should. It was a good service today, the first Sunday of Advent. At the end of Father’s homily he always asks for two questions. One of the questions was asked by a little girl who wanted to know how Saint Nicholas became called Santa. Father smiled; amused by the innocence and curiosity of a question that would only come from the mouth of a babe. He took a step back to address everyone, and answered.
Father told the story about how 1) St. Nicholas was a Catholic bishop in Turkey in the 4th century. At that time girls’ fathers had to pay a dowry for them to get married. St. Nick had heard that girls who could not afford a dowry had turned to prostitution to survive. 2) He began to give young girls money for their dowry so they could avoid selling their bodies.
Word of his generosity spread throughout his community. Father went on to tell us that St. Nicholas’ community was grateful for all of his numerous good deeds that they began to have a feast which became known as the feast of Saint Nicholas. It is now celebrated every year on December 6th. A tradition the community had on this day, was to leave their left shoe outside their door. 3) Saint Nicholas would go around and fill the shoes with chocolate or coins.
Father explained that word of the good deeds of Saint Nicholas had spread farther than his community. He became known as the bishop that encouraged young people to the catholic faith. 4) Father told the little girl that his popularity caused people to give him nicknames, like we do today with celebrities. Over time he became known as “father Christmas” and “Santa Claus”.
The answer father gave to this girl’s simple question was filled with so much knowledge that for the first time in months, I felt a SPARK of curiosity. I love celebrating Christmas traditions, but don’t really know much about them. I figure a good place to start is by learning a little more about Santa Claus.
After some online searching I have discovered that one reason he is now called Santa Claus is due to a nordic interpretation. Popularized in America, 5) Dutch Protestants of New Amsterdam converted the popish saint into a Nordic magician (Santa Claus = Sint Klaes = Saint Nicholas).
There are many legends of St. Nicholas. One is that on a journey by sea, the ship he was on sailed into a terrible storm. While everyone panicked St. Nicholas calmly prayed. The storm passed and they all survived. The sailors believed it was Nicholas who saved them. After that, stories began circulating of him appearing before sailors during perilous journeys and saving them. 6) He became the patron saint of sailors and voyagers.
Another legend tells of a time when famine troubled the area. The tale says that a butcher lived along a main traveling road. Three boys were on the road headed to school when the butcher took them and killed them. The butcher planned to turn them into meat to sell. St. Nick dreamed of the crime and prayed for the boys. They miraculously came back to life and were returned to their families. 7) This legend is how St. Nick became known as the protector of children. To go along with this, there are many stories of St. Nicholas standing up for innocents and preventing them from being executed.
St. Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in the 3rd century. His parents raised him Christian and died from an epidemic when he was a boy. St. Nicholas remained close to the church and decided to live a life of generosity. He continuously donated his inheritance. The most famous story of him giving away his inheritance was when he gave a bag of gold to a poor man for his daughter’s dowry. He secretly threw the gold through the father’s open window in the middle of the night. The man had three daughters, and received a bag of gold for his second daughter as well. When his third daughter came of age he planned to lye awake to see who was generously throwing bags of gold through his window. 8) St. Nicholas heard of the man’s plan and in order to remain anonymous he decided to throw the third and final bag down the chimney. This is most likely what SPARKED the modern notion that Santa delivers gifts by coming down the chimney.
Another interesting fact about St. Nicholas is that in 325 he was requested by Constantine to attend the first Council of Nisaea. 9) He is one of the many bishops to have signed the Nicene Creed.
The immense history between now and the 4th century allow for the ages to turn legend into fable and fable into fantasy. No matter how St. Nicholas’ tale has morphed the basis for every decision he made and the moral virtue in every one of his stories has been one of protection and selflessness. It truly is impressive that this man made so much of an impression that not only was he ordained a saint but his spirit has been immortalized into a figure still celebrated today. A figure that is admired by all children and is deeply connected to the religion he held so dear.
10) St. Nick is said to have pledged early in his life to live by Jesus’ words “sell what you own and give the money to the poor”. Nowadays Santa Claus may be surrounded by elves, shopping malls, and flying reindeer. Making it harder to see what this historical man really stood for; but underneath it all the message of generosity still carries throughout the Holiday season.
Whether you are religious or not, giving to others is a simple gesture everyone partakes in this time of the year. A gesture that may have really stemmed from one man centuries ago!