St. Nicholas or Santa Claus?

The feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6. What does Santa Claus have to do with Saint Nicholas?

Newsroom (06/12/2021 19:20, Gaudium PressWhen everyone is already immersed in a deep sleep, through the chimney of the house or through some other entrance that many have not yet discovered, a character appears. From far away lands, he arrives flying in a characteristic sleigh pulled by reindeer, with the air of a carriage, transport in which every child has ever insisted on sitting, even in dreams…

Now, what does this mysterious visitor – curiously enough, never mistaken for a thief – do when he arrives “late” on Christmas night, while everyone else is already asleep?

With a beard that is always white and long, he comes bringing “surprises” hidden in big red bags: presents of all kinds, which he distributes with abundance and unpretentiousness, like someone who wants to please without expecting anything in return.

This generous character is known to some as Santa Claus, and to others as Father Christmas. Both names refer to the same person, whose fame is truly worldwide and endures to this day, more alive than ever, giving us the impression that it will be eternal!

Every child, in any location on the globe, can tell where Santa Claus comes from: “From the North Pole!” Now, is this really his starting point?

Defender of the Faith and Generous Father

In reality, this Christmas figure is not as imaginary as it seems. It dates back to a man who was born in the third century in Asia Minor – so not at the North Pole! -More precisely where Turkey is today.

Named Nicholas, he was born to a wealthy family in Lycia, a Roman province on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of the virtues that shone in his soul, he was elected Bishop of Myra, one of the most important cities in the region, exercising his ministry with energy and kindness.

Always zealous for sound doctrine, he took severe measures against paganism and fought heresies tirelessly. But it was his works of charity to his neighbor that made him famous throughout the Christian world.

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Miracles Done in Life

One of these facts became known even during his lifetime, earning him the devotion of the faithful and a strong reputation for holiness.

At that time there was a judge in Mira, who, under the pressure of a bribe, sentenced three innocent men to death. At the moment of the execution, however, the kindly Nicholas appeared on the scene, snatched the weapon from the executioner’s hands, rebuked the unjust judge, and set the condemned men free.

A short time later, another similar event occurred in Constantinople: three officers were wrongly sentenced. Poor secular justice, so often ruled by the infamy of ambition instead of love for Truth! These defendants, however, had witnessed the scene narrated above and had no doubts: full of devotion to the imposing and paternal figure of Saint Nicholas, they immediately began to pray, asking him to save them too, even if from a distance… And behold, that very night the Emperor Constantine had a dream about the Saint, in which he received from him the order to free the unfortunate ones, because they were innocent!

The next day, Constantine summoned the three condemned men and, after questioning them, he learned that they had called upon “Nicholas of Myre”, asking for his help. Moved, the emperor released them.

The Patron Saint of Children!

Saint Nicholas died on December 6, in the middle of the fourth century. The virtues practiced by this man led him to achieve a high degree of sanctity, and his post-mortem miracles served to exalt him even more. He thus quickly became one of the best known saints of the Catholic Church.

The most famous of his titles was that of “patron saint of children”. And this is due mainly to two episodes. The first happened when the holy bishop learned that the father of three girls was in serious financial trouble and would not be able to pay the dowry necessary for the marriage of his daughters, which would lead them to adopt a wandering life…

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Filled with compassion for the members of this family, Nicholas went to the house where they lived and, hidden in the darkness of the night, he threw a little bag full of gold coins down the chimney in order to help them. He did this three times. Some versions of the story even claim that one of these generous bags fell right into the stocking of one of the young women, which was hanging dry in the chimney…

The second fact consists of a magnificent miracle performed during St. Nicholas’ lifetime: the resurrection of three boys who had been murdered! This was the event that ended up consecrating him officially as patron and protector of children.

Thus in many countries the pious tradition has been established of giving presents to children every December 6, in honor of St. Nicholas.

How could he turn into Santa Claus?

What does Santa Claus have to do with this description of St. Nicholas? How did the virtuous Bishop of Myraeus become an inhabitant of the North Pole who, in a single night, distributes Christmas presents to all the children in the world?

The transformation of the Saint into a chimera has its earliest origins in the Protestant Reformation. Just as many centuries ago Emperor Diocletian had tried to do away with the person of Nicholas, the reformers sought to erase the memory of this great man from history, and especially from the hearts of the faithful.

However, devotion to him was so deeply rooted in Europe that it did not disappear completely. The figure of Saint Nicholas mixed with mythological beings, some of them very unpleasant and aggressive, giving rise to characters such as the Dutch Sinterklaas, who came to the New World with the immigrants from that nation.

Throughout the 19th century, he took on his current physiognomy in New York. In 1822, the poet Clement Clarke Moore wrote a book entitled A Visit from Saint Nicholas, in which he presented a character coming from the North in a sleigh of flying reindeer. Years later, in 1863, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a picture for Harper’s Weekly magazine, in which he already presented the characteristics we know today: an old, corpulent, laughing man with abundant white beard.

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From then on, several companies began to take advantage of this Christmas figure as a means of advertising, including Coca-Cola, responsible for definitively establishing its red and white costume in 1920.

Let us celebrate Christmas with an authentic spirit of faith!

As we can see, Santa Claus is, therefore, a distortion of the holy and generous Bishop of Mira.

The virtuous man who shone for charity and proclaimed the true Christian face of Christmas has been replaced by the secular Santa Claus that we know today and has been transformed into the propagator of consumption. For many people today, Santa Claus is at the center of all celebrations, taking the place of the Child Jesus, the cause and joy of Christmas!

Therefore, much more than simple historical nomenclatures, we could say that these characters – Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas – symbolize, before the sublime fact of the birth of the Divine Infant, two opposing mentalities: one is that of those who, with their horizons set on this earthly world, “fly” through the air of the frivolous fantasies presented by consumerism; the other is that of those who, with joy and faith, prepare their souls to receive at Christmas not only the friendly Bishop of Mira with his gifts, but the God-Man himself!

Let us ask, then, for the intercession of Saint Nicholas, so that this Christmas he may grant us the spiritual gifts that our souls need, so that, like him, we can be generous, giving back with a pure life all the love that emanates from the Little Heart of the Baby God for each one of us.

Text taken, with adaptations, from the Magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 228. December 2020. By Sr. Antonella Ochipinti González, EP


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