Moving beyond the North Pole

Most of my friends recall the moment they figured out that Santa Claus wasn’t real. They would joke about the psychological harm the revelation had on their fragile 8-year-old psyches. I never experienced this because for some odd reason my wonderful parents never taught me about him. This matters not at all to me but apparently harmed my mother who now has made up for lost time with a bit of a Santa obsession. Her conception of the jolly old man is based on the Clement Moore version, of course.

My Santa revelation experience occurred later in life when I found out he was real — and important. The Dutch called him Sinterklass, which we Americans morphed into Santa Claus. But the man behind the legend is St. Nicholas, fourth century Bishop of Myra. Born into great wealth, he served God by giving away his inherited fortune and became renowned for his generosity to the poor and needy.

The most famous of many stories told about him is how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by tossing dowry money through their windows so they could get married. Yet for a man about whom so little is verified, his legend crossed all over the world. Much of Europe (he is Greece’s patron saint) celebrates his feast day today; German children put out their shoes last night and woke to find them filled with candy and toys this morning. (The Orthodox do this too.)

Celebrations also occur today throughout the United States. St. Nicholas is one of the few saints to be recognized and popular in both Eastern and Western Christianity. It’s not uncommon to find Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Episcopalian churches named in his honor.

Rather than mapping their seasonal coverage directly onto the retail calendar, complete with the glowing profiles of the Sacred Santa ensconced in his Bishop’s seat at the local sanctuary mall, reporters might do well to look at how locals are marking St. Nicholas’ day. Some reporters already managed this in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

David Crumm, the Detroit Free Press religion writer, had a great local angle on the story with his profile of a woman who promotes the celebration of St. Nicholas.

Since the Web site was launched in 2002, Carol Myers’ nonprofit promotion of St. Nicholas has become her year-round job. Every day, she adds to the vast collection of educational materials, history and festive holiday ideas at, because she is convinced there’s a growing interest in the religious traditions of Christmas. She argues that there’s far more to this season than the elves, red-nosed reindeer and talking snowmen that often overshadow the faith.

Myers’ biggest effort is promoting St. Nicholas’ feast day on Tuesday, when millions of Christians celebrate the 4th-Century saint, who was born in what is now Turkey and was famous for helping the poor.

“I’m not anti-Santa,” Myers said this week. “But, I do want people to know that this figure is based on a real person with a deep faith in God and compassion for people in need. At this time of year, I want people to focus more on compassion and less on consumption.”

On a related note, the Philadelphia Inquirer runs a feature called the Interfaith Calendar. It posts dates of import to the world’s religions. Here’s how it read for today (emphasis mine):

Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox (New Calendar), Byzantine Rite Catholic
Feast of St. Nicholas, legendary fourth-century archbishop of Myra. He is known in the East as the “Wonderworker” and as patron of the Byzantine Rite faithful. He is also the patron of children, scholars and merchants and one of the ancestors of Santa Claus. Traditionally, this was the first of the Christmas season’s gift-giving days.

Argh! How many times must we remind reporters that corporations and the Christian church use different calendars? The Christmas season for the former begins in, what, September? For the Christians, it begins on, well, Christmas. We’re still in Advent, people.

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  • Fred

    Thanks for the article! There is an error message if you click on the link. If you google it you get I sent several cards. It’s great that some journalists still concentrate on the positive.

  • tmatt

    The link is fixed.

    Also note the caption on that Detroit story. Uh, that is not a PAINTING in the photo. That is an ICON.

  • Avram

    Jim Macdonald over in the Making Light blog has a post about St Nicholas, with a couple of bits I hadn’t known: That the three golden balls on a pawnbroker’s sign are symbols of the dowry money for those three girls. And that when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, they fell onto St Nicholas’s Orthodox church, which had relics of the saint, of which Jim says “Those relics were never found, and are now mixed with those of other New Yorkers from that attack.”

  • Stephen A.

    You mean “Santa Claus” isn’t real?

    I’m confused. I see him on TV all the time. He MUST be real.

  • Mollie

    Rev. David H. Petersen also has an interesting post with a lesser-known tidbit:

    A less popular legend than Nicholas dispersing his inheritance to poor children, is a story that he got so upset with Arius, who was denying the Divinity of Christ in much the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do today, that he slapped him. Because of this outburst of violence he was to be suspended from his post as Bishop. Bishops rule in the kingdom of the right, not the left. There is no place for violence. After reflection and prayer, however, the Council decided not to remove him for the offense. Not because Arius had it coming (which he did,) but because Nicholas was repentant. Even Bishops of his stature, generosity, and compassion can lose their cool, and the way of the Church is forgiveness.

  • David

    You linked back to that article in March (well, GR did) (although that link seems now dead

    Money qoute

    And though it’s not entirely clear just when the historical Saint Nicholas began to meld into the image of the jolly man in the red suit, historians can now say precisely when the transformation was complete. On Feb. 3, the Demre City Council voted unanimously to erect a statue of Santa Claus in the town square, replacing a bronze statue of the Saint Nicholas who merely lived here.

    Commercialism claimed yet another victim – St. Nick

  • David
  • tmatt

    We briefly had a feature called Short Takes. Those links were lost when we switched servers.


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