My parents never allowed us to believe that Santa Claus really came in a sleigh with reindeer. The nonsense about dropping down people’s chimneys would have meant nothing to us anyway since we had no fireplace. We hung our stockings on the bedposts and easily guessed that our parents were the ones who filled them, though we never managed to stay awake long enough to verify it.
My mother had always believed the tale of Santa Claus until she was eight years old, when a friend shattered her world by telling her it was all rubbish. She wept inconsolably, feeling she had lost a cherished friend. Her own children, she decided, would not have to suffer such disillusionment. She and my father determined to have no part in the deception parents cheerfully inculcate on children at Christmastime. They told us the simple truth-Santa Claus died more than a thousand years ago. He does not drive a sleigh full of presents from the North Pole and land on people’s roofs. The Night Before Christmas was a poem we loved and memorized, though we knew it was “just pretend.”
But there was a real Santa Claus. It is doubtful that he had a droll little mouth, or a belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly. Nothing is known of his physical appearance, but of his godliness there is little doubt. Why not tell children the true story?
The name “Santa Claus” is derived from the way the Dutch settlers of New York pronounced Sant Niklass (St. Nicholas) a hundred and fifty years ago. He was born in the late third or early fourth century in Asia Minor of wealthy parents who had long prayed for a child. Early in his life they discerned in him great promise, and felt he should be a priest. Soon after his ordination his parents died, leaving him a great fortune. He began at once to give it all away, always contriving to remain anonymous.
He sometimes spent all night studying the Bible. He prayed and fasted and many believed that his prayers had brought them miracles. Twin brothers were said to have been raised from the dead. A nobleman who had sunk into poverty was in great distress, fearing that if he could not provide dowries for his three daughters, they could never marry. Nicholas learned of their plight and one night tossed a bag of gold through the window of their house. It fell at the feet of the eldest girl. Next night, another bag of gold-at the feet of the second sister, and on the third night, one for the youngest. On the first two nights he had slipped away without being discovered, but their father was waiting for him on the third night. He seized Nicholas’ robe and, astonished to discover who it was, fell to his knees and asked, “Why do you seek to hide yourself?”
From this incident came the St. Nicholas symbol, three bags or balls of gold which pawnshops now display to show their readiness to help the poor.
Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, a seaport city. He died somewhere around A.D. 342-345 and several hundred years later was canonized (declared a saint) by the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the Middle Ages more than four hundred churches in England were named for him. He became the patron saint of Russia, Greece, the kingdom of Naples, and of mariners, merchants, and children.
In Germany it was customary for families to exchange small presents on the Eve of St. Nicholas’ Day. Coal or switches were put in the shoes of naughty children as they slept, and trinkets such as we might put in Christmas stockings were given to good little boys and girls. Red Santa Claus suits with white ermine trim derive from the bishop’s robe. The traditional cap is similar to the bishop’s mitre.
Which character is the more worthy of a child’s emulation-the jolly man who supposedly fills stockings, or the holy man who loved God and gave away his fortune?
**Excerpt originally published in the Nov/Dec 1994 Elisabeth Elliot Newsletter.