While the association of Santa Claus with the birth of Christ—and the roots of the Christmas season—is tenuous at best there is a real figure behind the red-suited fat fellow and his name is St. Nicholas.
You’ve heard of him.
Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and St. Nick are often pseudonyms for the same guy this time of the year but while two are purely fiction the fact of St. Nicholas, as a real honest-to-goodness saint, is firmly grounded in history.
And a fascinating one at that.
And while his link to Santa Claus, gift-giving, and good cheer during the Christmas season is warranted he’s not exactly jolly old St. Nick. A famously generous saint and a spiritual man of tenacious integrity if St. Nicholas were alive today he’d just as likely be slipping down your chimney to deliver you a knuckle sandwich as he would a Christmas gift.
The Real Saint Nick
St. Nicholas was born in Patara, Turkey in 270AD and died in 345. He was, at the age of 30, installed as bishop of Myra, a town that St. Paul passed through much earlier on his way to stand trial in Rome.
Sprung from a notoriously generous family, Nicholas’s parents died while working amongst the sick when he was quite young. It was, clearly, dangerous work and while the death of his parents couldn’t have been unexpected their selfless example, and courage, would clearly be a touchstone for Nicholas for the rest of his life.
It would mark him, and change him.
And the inheritance he would receive would naturally be ear-marked for those that needed it most—those that his parents served before him; his desire to be generous and serve the needs of the less fortunate began the Christmas tradition of anonymous gift-giving.
A Tenacious Theology
However, apart from the famous gift-giver, St. Nicholas is known for another phenomenal tale which took place at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD.
This famous council, the first major council of the Early Christian Church, was pivotal in setting the direction and teachings of the earliest Christians as they sought to understand and live out their faith. It is from this council that the Nicene Creed, one of the pillars of the Christian theology, would originate. And it was in wrestling with the very tenets of Christianity that we meet St. Nicholas, the tenacious defender of the faith.
And the infamous face slap.
It was at this time in the Church that questions over the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God the Father were being wrestled with and struggled over. And emotions and passions ran high.
So, when a fellow bishop rose to speak authoritatively against Jesus being both human and divine (as we understand Him to be today) it was St. Nicholas who passionately leapt up from his seat, across the table, and slapped the face of his opposition bishop.
So outraged was St. Nicholas at these unsubstantiated claims that he simply couldn’t control his faculties.
And let loose.
It’s through the good work of saints like Nicholas that we understand our faith even today; a faith that may look very different if it hadn’t been for their passionate discourse.
A Generous Gift-Giver
But Saint Nicholas’s generosity is legendary as well. Rooted in historical fact a good deal of our Christmas tradition can be traced back to St. Nick’s selfless acts of kindness—especially directed towards the most needy. Even the red suit traditionally worn by Santa Claus is akin to the red robes traditionally worn by bishops, like Nicholas.
But while our gift-giving is typically centred around our friends and family, the gift-giving which first began with St. Nicholas had a distinct philanthropic purpose: the poor and afflicted.
Likewise, several accounts famously depict St. Nicholas as coming to the aid of those condemned to death even, in one case, walking right up to an executioner who was set to execute a man falsely accused by a corrupt magistrate. According to the story, St. Nicholas strutted right up to the executioner and grabbed the sword by out of his hand.
No word of whether he delivered his famously slap as well.
The Example of Jolly Old Saint Nick
So, this year, while we celebrate Christmas with our friends and family; while we give and receive gifts and enjoy our time together it’s important to remember the example of St. Nicholas and the roots of many of our Christmas traditions.
Remember, first, the tenacious orthodox defender. St. Nicholas, apart from being a generous gift giver, was a relentless defender of the Christian truth. How so many of us fail to live up to what we believe or remain silent when our voices would add so much to the conversion can reflect on the example of good old Saint Nick delivering his holy slap-across-the-face.
The Slap Across the Face of Truth®.
And, likewise, in the spirit of St. Nicholas we need to pay special attention to the most needy people at this time of the year. It almost goes without saying that on the heels of a very tumultuous political season we need to, this Christmas, remember especially those on the margins.
The myth of pulling one’s self up purely by their own boot straps is, unlike St. Nicholas, purely fiction.
We Christians, in the example of Saint Nicholas, need to help one another out. To work to lift up the most vulnerable and defend those who have no one else to defend them.
And, really, these things good hand in hand: If we fail, either to defend our faith or defend those in need, I wouldn’t hesitate to wager that Jolly Old St. Nick, were he here today, would have a special delivery coming to a cheek near you.