Posted On December 19, 2021

Saint Nicholas and the Origins of Santa Claus

by | Dec 19, 2021 | Knowing Jesus the Hope of the Ages

Saint Nicholas and the Origins of Santa Claus 1

It might surprise many today to find out that Saint Nicholas (spoiler alert) was a real person after all. Was he the white-bearded man with a red suit, a cap, and a sleigh? Not quite, but he probably was bearded, did wear a hat, and did travel in horse-drawn—albeit not reindeer-drawn—transportation. The legend behind “Santa Claus” is Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra. His hat was the bishop’s miter.

Nicholas was born in modern day Turkey to a rather wealthy family. Losing his parents at a young age, Nicholas dedicated both his fortune and his life to the Christian church. Very quickly he was appointed the bishop of Myra, on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey.

These were days of persecution for Christians. Roman Emperor Diocletian, who reigned from 284–305 A.D., hated Christians and stuffed Roman jails full of them. Bishop Nicholas spent the first few years of the fourth century in jail and faced routine beatings. In the next decade, Constantine legalized Christianity and Nicholas was set free.

As the legend goes, Bishop Nicholas was present at the Church’s First Ecumenical Council at Constantine’s summer palace in Nicaea in 325 A.D. Hundreds of Bishops gathered there to refute the false teachings of Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria. Arius denied Christ’s deity. At one point while Arius was addressing the council, Nicholas’s rage got the better of him. According to some of his biographers, Nicholas stood up, crossed the floor to Arius, and promptly punched him in the face.

For the assault, Nicholas found himself back in jail again. The bishops deliberated his fate. Nicholas was repentant and sought forgiveness. After the Council, Constantine granted clemency and restored Bishop Nicholas to his post.

And at his post Bishop Nicholas diligently served. Over the course of his entire life, he was known for being extremely generous. He was especially generous to children, regularly giving them gifts. Myra was a busy port city with ships and sailors coming and going. The ships went out of Myra’s port loaded with gifts and goods for the needy, all provided and packed on by Bishop Nicholas. His gifts went all around the Mediterranean world. As sailors went around the world, they took with them the stories of the generosity of Bishop Nicholas.

The year of Bishop Nicholas’s death is uncertain, but the month is firmly believed to be December. As the story of his generosity spread, the stories of his life grew and grew. He was becoming legendary. In the sixth century, a church was dedicated to him and named for him in Constantinople. His image was depicted more in the Middle Ages than any other except those of Christ and of Mary. No longer Bishop Nicholas, now he became Saint Nicholas, and his Feast Day would be December 6.

One of the legends around Nicholas concerned his giving dowries to young poor girls so they would be able to marry. To reflect that legend, images of him carrying bags bulging with gold coins began to appear.

As his legend moved northward, the story takes an even more interesting turn. In Germany, the tradition arose of giving gifts to each other in the name of Saint Nicholas. So, too, in the Netherlands; the Dutch word for him became Sinterklaas. The German word eventually became “Santa Claus”. These celebrations of gift-giving occurred on December 6, the anniversary of his death. The gift of a gold coin was highly prized and showed great favor.

Even Martin Luther would come to play a role in the legend. Luther wanted a Protestant alternative to the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating the Feast of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus). Instead of giving gifts in the name of Santa Claus on December 6, Luther started the tradition of giving gifts in the name of the Christ child, Christkindl, on Christmas Eve. Perhaps in this we have an argument for Protestant kids everywhere as to why they should be allowed to open at least one present on Christmas Eve.

Luther loved Christmas. He wanted it to be a celebration of giving around the supreme gift of the babe born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. As he preached in 1530 A.D., “He who lies in the virgin’s lap is our Savior…give thanks to God, who so loved you that he gave you a Savior.”

Christmas evolved from the word Christ Mass, the celebration of the incarnation of Christ, fixed by tradition as being on December 25th. The word Luther coined, Christkindl, also evolved over the centuries. It would become Santa Claus’ other moniker, Kris Kringle. This effort of Luther’s to move away from the Santa Claus tradition inadvertently veered right toward it.

So, we have the story of Santa Claus. Interestingly enough, Saint Nicholas and his legend began in the early church. The stories wove their way through the Middle Ages, and they even made an appearance at the Reformation. Those stories still live with us today.

This article was originally posted at Ligonier and is posted here with permission.

Related Posts

Why was Jesus being from Nazareth Derogatory

Why was Jesus being from Nazareth Derogatory

Luke 4:24 gives a general principle of human relationships. We often envy the success of those who come from the same circumstances that we do. Indeed, the people of Nazareth seemed to resent the fact that rather than staying at home, Jesus went off and became a...

Does God Forget our sins?

Does God Forget our sins?

Scripture teaches that God forgives and forgets sinners' sin in Christ (Isaiah 43:25; Hebrews 10:14-18). Passages such as Isaiah 43:25 and Hebrews 10 teach that the Lord does not remember the sins of sinners in Christ. Yet, we should not confuse the Lord remembering...

How Was There Peace on Earth at Jesus’ Birth?

How Was There Peace on Earth at Jesus’ Birth?

After giving the shepherds the good news of the gospel in Luke, chapter 2, the angel punctuated his proclamation with praise. But he did not do this alone, as the Scripture states, “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and...

Do the Narratives of Jesus’ Birth Contradict Each Other?

Do the Narratives of Jesus’ Birth Contradict Each Other?

Two of the Gospel narratives give an account of the happenings surrounding the birth of Jesus. Matthew 1-2 tells about Joseph and includes the story of the Magi from the East. Luke 1-2 does not mention the Magi but focuses on Mary and others—including Elizabeth,...

10 Things You Should Know about Justification by Faith

10 Things You Should Know about Justification by Faith

One: Justification by Faith is a Whole-Bible Doctrine Some Christians may be surprised to learn that the doctrine of justification by faith is not only found in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament. Genesis tells us that Abraham, in response to God’s promise,...

What the Atonement Means for You

What the Atonement Means for You

Central to the why our triune God created humans is that He created us to know Him in covenant relationship and to display His glory in the world as His kings and queens (Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8). But given human sin, how does God’s purpose still stand? In our sin,...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share
Tweet
Email
Reddit
Share