It's that magical time of year when the lights go up, the trees get decorated and a familiar bearded man in a red suit pops up everywhere.

He goes by a few names: Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nick.

But who was the real Santa Claus?

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Well, to answer that, we need to go way back in history to the fourth century to a Bishop called Nicholas of Myra (present-day Demre, Turkey).

Memes abound about St Nicholas and Arius

Some early lists place him as one of the Bishops who attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and there are some questionable legends which states that he was temporarily defrocked (a removal from office) and imprisoned during the Council for apparently slapping the heretic Arius across the face!

The following is an excerpt from a book called The Book of the Saints, which details some of the main aspects we know about St. Nicholas’ life and the miracles attributed to him:

ST. NICHOLAS was born into a wealthy family at Patara, Lycia, Asia Minor. He was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian, attended the Council of Nicaea, and died at Myra, where he was buried in the cathedral. Nicholas was chosen Bishop of Myra and devoted himself to helping the poor.

Tradition says that Nicholas devoted himself to works of charity. Hearing that an impoverished father had to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he had no money for their marriage dowry, Nicholas threw a small bag of gold into the poor man's window on three different evenings, and his daughters were able to marry. Finally, he was discovered as the bearer of these gifts.

At one time, he saved three innocent young men from execution by the powerful civil governor, Eustathius. At another time he came to the aid of seamen who called for his help during a storm at sea off the coast of Lycia. Suddenly appearing on their ship, he manned the ropes and sails beside the weary sailors and brought the vessel to port. Another tale relates that during a famine in his country, Nicholas was able through his prayers to guide some passing ships filled with grain to come to relieve his starving people.

Needless to say, with stories like these to his credit, Nicholas became a popular saint after his death. Seamen throughout Europe and Asia, as well as his own people, adopted him as their patron.

His relics were carried to Bari, Italy, in 1087, after the Moslem invasion of Asia Minor. Countless churches in England, France and Germany bear his name. In Germany he became associated with Christmas, and as a giver of gifts on that holyday he is known in America as the kind and generous "Santa Claus."

“Lord, giver of good gifts, make us generous to others, especially to the needy.”

 The book of the Saints, Hoagland, V, Regina Press, pp. 288-290

From the excerpt above, it becomes clear how Nicholas became associated with gift-giving and charity, and the level of miraculous events that were part of his life could explain how “Old Saint Nick” came to be seen as a magical figure too. So how did a fourth century Bishop from Turkey end up as a jolly old man with a beard and a red suit? Well you can thank the sailors who took him on as their patron saint for that. As they travelled, stories of St. Nicholas went with them all over the world, eventually going to the Dutch who called him Sinterklaas (or Sint-Nicolaas). This, in time, became “Santa Claus” via American Dutch settlers where the tradition then came to England and merged with other ancient traditions of “Father Christmas”, a 15-17th century personification of Christmas in Britain.

Sinterklaas 2007.jpg
Sinterklaas played by Bram van der Vlugt
By Gaby Kooiman, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

It’s also from the Dutch incarnation of St. Nicholas that we get the traditional red outfit and big white beard of Santa Claus. In the Dutch tradition, the Sinterklaas figure wears a red outfit styled after a liturgical vestment and traditional Bishops items, such as the mitre, alb and a crosier – a ceremonial shepherd's staff. He also carries a book listing out every child who has been good or naughty in the last year too!

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While today’s incarnation of Santa Claus may be more mythical and secular than we may like, let's not forget that if it wasn’t for an ancient Christian bishop in Turkey, we wouldn’t even have the popular figure! So, if you’re looking for a more faith-based alternative to teach your kids during this season, why not tell them about the historical figure of Saint Nicholas and all the wonder-working he did during his life as we remember the Father of Lights who gave us his perfect gift from above in the form of His Son, Jesus Christ (James 1:17; Matt. 2:1-3, 9-11).

Merry Christmas everyone!

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