Speaking Personally

I Believe in Santa Claus, and You Should Too
Kids from 1 to 92, I have some great news: Santa Claus is REAL. He is as real as you or me, your grandmother or Abraham Lincoln. Like a lot of historical figures or members of bygone generations, the details of his life on earth have been embellished. 
The Nicholas who would eventually become “jolly old St. Nick” was born in 270 A.D. in what is now Turkey, but was then part of Greece. His young life was spent in material comfort as a son of a prosperous Christian family, but he came to know sorrow at an early age when both his parents took ill and died, leaving him in possession of their considerable estate. While still a young man, he was made the Bishop of Myra, thanks to his well-known piety and advantageous social position.
Drawing on his strong Christian values, he lived a life defined by generosity. Though very austere in providing for himself, he was known for an open purse and a compassionate heart for others. Perhaps the best story of his famed generosity is about three destitute young maidens who had no prospects for marriage.
According to the customs of the time, poor girls with no wealth to bring to a marriage, or a dowry, were undesirable as brides. It was likely such girls were sold as slaves. St. Nicholas, these three girls and their troubles, visited their home by dark of night to throw pieces of gold through an open window. The gold famously landed in the girls’ shoes and stockings left to dry in front of the fireplace. The girls were spared a cruel fate thanks to the generosity of St. Nicholas. In remembrance, children all over the world are given oranges at Christmastime meant to symbolize these gold coins.
One story that shows an early example of St. Nicholas’s devotion to right and wrong, as well as a hint of Santa’s mischief, allegedly took place at the Council of Nicaea, which was a meeting of all the leaders of the Christian world to determine official doctrine. A controversial idea was introduced by a clergyman called Arius. His idea suggested that Jesus was not divine, but rather simply a holy man or a good example. Outraged by this heresy, St. Nicholas is said to have slapped Arius across the face then and there. St. Nicholas spent the rest of the Council under lock and key as punishment for his outburst - even though Arius’s idea was, in fact, condemned as heresy.
Returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, St. Nicholas’s ship experienced rough weather, and it is said that the saint had a heart full of peace from so lately walking where Jesus walked and lived, that he calmly prayed for the ship to be spared from the danger of the storm. The speed with which his prayer was answered prompted the sailors of his time and region to consider him a special patron of theirs and, in their travels, spread tales of St. Nicholas’s life to the four corners of the earth. He became a beloved and well-venerated saint throughout the world.
So, how did this generous, if rabble-rousing, wonder-worker come to be represented as a jolly old man in a red suit with no hint of a bishop's mitre?
St. Nicholas and the wonderful stories of his life and deeds were so loved throughout Europe that veneration of the ancient saint survived the Reformation as a homey tradition of the common people, and in this way Santa Claus, as he was called by the Dutch, was brought to America in the hearts and minds of European immigrants.
Children’s books and poems of the 19th century began to depict St. Nick as a man who came from the North dressed in fur, as a European traveling to America might have been dressed. Long considered a patron of children and those in need, and already part of the home traditions of the family, St. Nick was an ideal symbol for a holiday season that was newly associated with family and children for the first time at this point in history. He is traditionally considered to have died on December 6, 343 A.D. making his association with the Christmas season seem that much more natural.
The iconic red suit was stamped into the public memory by Coca-Cola advertisements which first appeared in the 1930s and also firmly established Santa’s association with all things commercial. Historic icons of St. Nicholas do often show an austere bishop in red robes, so it seems his modern-day outfit is clearly a fanciful embellishment meant to make him seem accessible and jolly. Let’s face it: a fur suit would have been more like a penance than a garment for St. Nicholas in Turkey during the third century.
Here we are today with Santa finding time to visit every shopping mall in America and bring toys to all well-behaved children on Christmas Eve. Say what you will about the commercialism of Christmas, but we give gifts at this time of year because God gave us His very best when He gave us His only Son. St. Nicholas knew this and spent his life giving from the heart for that very reason.
As long as we keep a firm grip on the love that prompted such a gift as our Messiah and inspired the generous and compassionate life of St. Nicholas, I say we would all do well to keep believing in Santa Claus.
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