Points to Ponder Christmas Traditions The Origin of Santa Claus and Gift-Giving

by Pastor Dennis Whitmore

Is Santa Claus real? Yes! Much of what we know about him comes from legend, myth and marketing; but, that he was a highly honored Christian Saint is a FACT.

“Saint Nicholas” was a 4th century bishop (which means “pastor”) who was famous for his generosity and kindness, particularly to poor children. Born in Patras, a city of Lysia in Asia Minor, his father was a wealthy bishop and his mother an extremely holy woman. Legend has it that as a boy he was already exhibiting qualities of holiness in that he preferred to study and understand scripture rather than to engage in childhood games.

When his parents died, inheriting their great wealth troubled him, so he set out to give it away. In order to avoid being impoverished, enslaved or forced into a bad marriage, a young single woman needed a dowry. Nicholas would go secretly by night to the homes of the poor women and drop a bag of gold through the window or down the chimney. One woman, who was expecting this gift, hung her stockings in the fireplace in order to receive it (thus we have the custom of Christmas stockings).

Several Christ-like miracles have been attributed to Bishop Nicholas, such as calming a stormy sea, providing food for the starving province of Myra from the emperor’s ship’s cargo without depleting it, and even raising a dead man back to life.

He was also imprisoned for his fearless preaching and his refusal to worship the statues of the emperor. He was known for opposing the harsh treatment of people by the authorities and for saving numerous lives from many dangers.

You may handle some of his work every week. Bishop Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, helping to formulate the original canon of the Bible and the Nicene Creed. Next to Mary, mother of Jesus, Nicholas is the most venerated Saint in Europe. He died on December 6, A.D. 343 and therefore that date became the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Every year gifts were given on that day. When his fame spread to the New World, Nicholas gave up his own day and took over December 25, Christ’s birthday.

The early images of Saint Nicholas were of a relatively thin man, dressed and bearded like an orthodox priest. He rode a white horse, carrying two baskets; one contained gifts for “good” children and the other held birch rods (“switches”) for the naughty ones. When the Russians adopted him as a patron saint around A.D. 1003, his fame spread to the Samoyeds and Laplanders, the people who used reindeer sleds.

In America, Washington Irving described him as a “buckskin-clad elf in a wagon drawn by a tiny horse.” Then in 1822, Dr. Clement Moore embellished that image in a poem he wrote for his children. We call it, “The Night Before Christmas.” Moore pictured Saint Nick as a “jolly old elf” with a “little round belly,” a white beard, and a pipe who rode in a sleigh pulled by “eight tiny reindeer.”

In the 1860s, Thomas Nast produced drawings from Moore’s words. And then in the 1920s, the Coca-Cola Company dressed Saint Nick in Coca-Cola red and enlarged him. This is the version we see imitated in the malls.

But the real Santa Claus (from Dutch “Sinter Klaas”), or Saint Nicholas, is alive and well because people who belong to Jesus Christ never die. A great Christian leader, he pointed people to Jesus through his love of children, his generous and kind heart, and the way he pastored his people.

Yes, Santa Claus was a pastor.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Dennis

Note: On Christmas Day, the mall is closed, but Jesus is having “open house.” Come to a very informal worship gathering.
* 9:30 a.m. Mt Carmel United Methodist, Rt. 56 Big Pool
* 9 a.m. First UMC, 424 Main Street in Laurel
Coffee and cake for Jesus follows.

Pastor Whitmore serves God at the First United Methodist Church in Laurel, MD.