Putting St. Nicholas Back in Christmas

by Dr. Gene Edward Veith

Santa Claus has become the patron saint of a secularized Christmas. Many Christians are trying to balance the mystique of Santa with the true meaning of Christmas centered in Christ. Some families are doing without Santa altogether, but even that can prove complicated. (As one of our own children told the grandparents, “My parents don’t believe in Santa Claus, but I do!”)

And yet, no matter how hard people try, Christmas resists secularization. The very name contains Christ, and when stores try to avoid that name by using holiday, that word, too, contains a confession that the day is holy. And Santa Claus, which is just a contraction of St. Nicholas, really is a patron saint.

Indeed, among Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, St. Nicholas is one of the most popular of the saints they venerate. He is the patron saint of children, students, sailors, merchants, (strangely) thieves and the entire nation of Greece. Stories about the saints are called “legends.”That they are not necessarily historically accurate has given rise to a broader meaning for things that are “legendary.” Still, legends often contain a grain of truth, if not in the history, then in their meaning.

We do know that St. Nicholas lived from A.D. 270 to A.D. 343 and was the bishop of Myra, in present-day Turkey. The legends tell how he would give gifts to children and how he paid for the dowries of young women so that they could marry, dropping gold down the chimney or tossing the money through the window so that it landed in their stockings hung up to dry before the hearth.

Another story, though, connects St. Nicholas to an important historical event. He was said to have attended the Council of Nicaea, the conference of bishops that met to consider the claims of Arius, who taught that Christ was not God but only a man. The bishops affirmed the biblical truth that Christ is both God and man, using language that is still used today when we confess the Nicene Creed.

Supposedly, Bishop Nicholas of Myra was so incensed when he heard Arius tearing down the divinity of Christ that he went up to the heretic and slapped him in the face. Some accounts have jolly old St. Nicholas slugging Arius with his fist!

The Emperor Constantine (who sympathized with the Arians) was present and demanded that Nicholas be thrown into prison. His fellow bishops, shocked at the impropriety, voted to strip him of his office and removed his bishop’s stole.

That night, according to the legend, as Nicholas was languishing in his cell, he had a vision of Jesus and Mary. The Lord asked him, “Why are you here?” Nicholas replied, “Because I love you.” Jesus gave him a golden book of the Gospels, and Mary gave him a new bishop’s stole. The next day, the other bishops woke up with a conviction that they should restore Nicholas, which they did.

So, did any of this actually happen? Probably not. The contemporary accounts of the council do not mention any such incident. And yet Nicholas may have been at the Council of Nicaea. All of the bishops of the Church were invited, and Nicaea and Myra were in the same country. Some early accounts say that Nicholas of Myra was present. A list of attendees, though, does not include him. (That is to say, of the eleven surviving copies, only three do, but those might be later additions.)

We cannot verify that St. Nicholas actually struck Arius, but it is just as well attested as his putting gold in young girls’ stockings. And it is much better attested than his living at the North Pole with elves and flying reindeer. The meaning of the legend, though, is surely true: St. NicholasSanta Clausconfessed Christ.

The problem with the cult of the saints, as practiced historically, is that the saints become detached from Christ. Sailors would pray to St. Nicholas to save them from a storm, rather than to the One who calmed the Sea of Galilee. Similarly, children ask Santa to bring them gifts, instead of the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Actual saints, however, point not to themselves but to Christ. It wasnt their supernatural virtues that made them saints. Rather, it was their faith in Christ.

St. Nicholas knew who Christ is”very God of very God” who was “made man”and he also knew that Christ was “for him.” St. Nicholas may or may not have been in a literal prison. But he surely knew the prison that is sin. Nevertheless, Christ came to him in forgiveness, bringing His Word and His calling.

Can we put the saint back into Santa Claus? In a column I wrote for World Magazine that has attained eternal life on the Internet, I tried to be funny by proposing new song lyrics (Santa Claus Is Coming to Slap, Deck the Apollinarian with Bats of Holly, Frosty the Gnostic, Rudolph the Red Knows Jesus) and holiday customs (greeting people who take the Christ out of Christmas with a gentle slap).

But probably our best hope comes from building on what Santa is most associated with: the giving of gifts. We can explain to our children that they receive gifts at Christmas because, in the words of the Small Catechism, God “has given me my body and soul . . . clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home . . . and all I have.” Above all, He has given us salvation, not based on whether weve been naughty or nice, but as a free gift. That is, He has given us Jesus.

We can also take the opportunity to teach the doctrine of vocation. God gives His gifts through what other peopleyour parents, pastor and so ongive you. So, God is the One who is giving you your toys and gifts on Christmas morning by means of all of these people who love you.

We can tell our children that God gave the gift of Jesus to Santa Claus long ago. He became a pastor who helped children and, when he baptized them, gave them the gift of Jesus too. Thats why Christmas has Santa and presents. Its really all about Jesus.

> According to Gallup, 95 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas.
> Download a children’s Christmas program on Good King Wenceslas.

About the Author: Dr. Gene Edward Veith serves as provost at Patrick Henry College.

December 2011

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