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The saint who became Santa Claus

December 3, 2015
Jerry Costello
The Christophers

You probably know that there’s a real-life “Jolly Old St. Nick” in our background, and that he’s got a feast day in the church (Dec. 6) along with the rest of the saints. The odds are, though, that you don’t know that much more about St. Nicholas.

If that’s the case, and if you’d like to know a little more about him, a book by an American historian might clear up some of the mystery. It’s called “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.” It’s written by Adam C. English and published by Baylor University Press – and expounded on by English in an interview that appeared in The Catholic Spirit of St. Paul-Minneapolis. In the book, the author explains what we know (and what we can infer) about St. Nicholas, and why he deserves our attention still today for the examples his life provides of Christian charity and justice.

First of all, St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a diocese in what is now Turkey. He was born at some time in the third century (various sources list the date as 270, although English says only that it was “sometime after the year 260”), when Christianity was still a struggling religion. At the time of his death, in 343, the faith was well established.

One of the reasons for that was the Council of Nicea (325), which ruled on many important matters – including the Aryan heresy, which erroneously taught that Christ did not share in God’s divinity. Nicholas would have attended the council as a bishop, and while his own contributions are lost in the mists of history, his followers began to recall things after his death that cemented his reputation for justice and charity.

An early story that circulated about St. Nicholas was that he saved three innocent men from beheading, illustrating the side of him that was, in author English’s words, “very much the lawyer, the social activist, the person that was not afraid to get his hands dirty and get in the mix of things and defend those who needed defending.”

The association of the modern-day Santa Claus as someone who draws up a list of “who’s been naughty and nice” may be a residue of this virtue, English believes. “It was very much in Nicholas,” he declares, “this very deep concern for justice.”

Another story about St. Nicholas, one that lingers, concerns his gift-giving, centered on the concept of the dowry – the amount of money or property that a bride brought to her husband. Nicholas gave money to three destitute maidens for them to use as dowry, the story goes, tossing their gifts anonymously through their windows at night. This “grabbed the attention of people at the time,” English says, serving as a model of Christian charity.

English says he became interested in the Nicholas of history as a way of reconciling him with the Santa Claus of myth – and their role in the birth of our Savior.

“He doesn’t leave us sermons or theological tracts or legislation. He leaves us a witness, a model,” the author says. “And I think that’s what people need.”

He summed up in a sentence what he learned about Nicholas of Myra: “Here’s what Jesus would do, here’s what Christian charity demands – that’s what captures people’s heart and imagination.”

The Christophers, founded in 1945 by Maryknoll Father James Keller, encourage people of all ages, and from all walks of life, to use their God-given talents to make a positive difference in the world. The mission is best expressed in The Christophers’ motto: “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” For a free copy of the Christopher News Note “Opening Yourself to God’s Grace,” write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or email: mail@christophers.org.

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