I’m sure by now most of you have started your Christmas shopping. I always enjoy thoughtfully considering the best gift for each member of our families. Once they’re carefully wrapped and placed under the tree, I get excited (and sometimes a bit nervous) for them to be opened, to see the delight, to share a story of where I found it or why I thought it was perfect. Yes, I’m one of those people.
The iconic Christmas gift giver in our culture is Santa Claus. Children expectantly wait to see what he might bring them, and even adults still get wrapped up in the magic of Santa. But Santa Claus has not always been a cultural icon or connected to the materialism and consumerism of Christmas. Behind the rosy cheeked, scarlet clad figure we now know as Santa Claus was a real man—St. Nicholas. Today, December 6, is his feast day.
St. Nicholas was a 3rd-century bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey) and became one of the most popular saints in both Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. What we don’t often hear about Nicholas was his role in the church fighting heresy. His teaching kept at bay the heresy of Arianism, which denied that Jesus was fully God. Some legends even say that during the Council of Nicea, which was debating the heresy Arianism, Nicholas was so outraged at the blasphemy of Arius that he slapped him in the face! Certainly a different picture of St. Nicholas than we get at Christmas.
As legend would have it, Nicholas inherited a large amount of money as a young man, but the newly-rich heir decided not to keep it. When he heard of three young women on the verge of destitution (and some versions of the story would say prostitution), he used his riches for their benefit. In the middle of the night, he anonymously threw three large bags of gold through the window of the family house, so that each could have a dowry and marry respectably.
As the years past, St. Nicholas would become the source of legend, and probably tied to the gold story, people began giving gifts in his name. When the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe, this largely ceased, except in Holland, where they continued to tell stories of St. Nicholas, or as they called him Sinterklass. As Dutch immigrated to America, they brought these stories and traditions with them, and his name quickly became anglicized to what we know today: Sinterklass became Santa Claus.
We typically give gifts to those close to us—our family and friends. But the original story of St. Nicholas challenges us further—to give to those who cannot reciprocate, to those we do not know, to those who are in need, to those who may not even deserve it. His example is that of unwarranted, unexpected, and unsolicited generosity. His example points us much closer to the pattern of Jesus, who did not give to us because we deserved it, because we made it to the “nice list,” or because of what we could give back to him. He gave because we were needy, and He is filled with compassion, love, and grace. During this Christmas season, let this example inspire us to do likewise.