Today, December 6, is the feast of Saint Nicholas. While popularly associated with Santa Claus, he was so much more than the image of Santa many of us have.
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This time of year, it is not uncommon to hear people refer to “Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick”. But just who was Saint Nicholas? And how does the common and popular image of Saint Nicholas compare to the real Saint Nicholas?
He lived in the fourth century in Myra (now modern-day Turkey), where he ultimately became the bishop. While the historical record is a little unclear, it is believed he was a bishop at the Council of Nicea in 325. In fact, it may be he was not referenced as attending the council because it was thought he slapped or beat Arius, who believe that Jesus was divine but not really fully human, or that he slapped or hit some other heretic.
In fact, the Nicene Creed, which we say at Sunday Mass and on Solemnities, is a summary of the beliefs of this council. A central belief arose, homoousios, or “of one substance” (the word “consubstantial in the creed) was articulated as Jesus being “of one substance” with the Father. In other words, when Jesus came to earth he was fully human, and yet, as the Divine Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was also fully divine.
So where does Santa Claus Come From?
So when is it that Saint Nicholas become known as Santa Claus? We can largely attribute this connection to the Germans and Slavic Christians in Europe, especially during the 18th and 19th century. The name Nicholas comes from two Greek words, nike (meaning victory) and laos (meaning people). So, the world can either mean the people’s victory or the victory of the people. (You might see now why the shoe company chose the name Nike.)
The laos part of the name became a more familiar way to speak of Nicholas in German. And so, our use of the name Santa Claus comes from this formalized title for Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, or Saint Klass (Santa Claus). And yet when we look at the life of Saint Nicholas as a defender of the faith it hardly brings to mind the kindly image of Santa Claus. How is it Saint Nicholas became associated with Santa Claus?
Well, it is due to another story told about Saint Nicholas. It seems there were three little girls from a poor family. Things became so desperate the father even contemplated selling one of his daughters into slavery so that the others could eat. It is said that Saint Nicholas threw three gold coins down the chimney (which landed in the girls’ stockings — hence the Christmas stockings) so that the father could pay the bills.
Another version of the legend involved three boys who ate their fill in a restaurant but since they could not pay their bill, the innkeeper chopped them up and cooked them to make stew. It seems that Saint Nicholas stopped by and told the innkeeper that if one good thing could be found for each boy, Saint Nicholas would bring the boys back to life.
Still another legend involved three women who were unable to marry since they had no dowry. Seeing the sad women, Saint Nicholas put gold coins in the shoes of the women to pay their dowry. However it happened, Saint Nicholas became known for his kindness and generosity.
It could very well be the case today that we could bring the bishop who very much loved his Lord and his faith together with the kindness for which he became known. Could you think about how it is you could grow in faith and become more kind and generous?