Article by Dr. Stephen Lowell Swisher
Christians continue to debate whether to teach their children about Santa Claus. But the story behind the real Santa Claus should leave no doubt as to the wisdom of teaching our children about him. It’s a revealing story that I believe should be shared. |
The roots of “Santa Claus” are found in the Middle East – in Turkey. Ancient Christian writings indicate that Nicholas of Myra, the person we know as Santa, actually was a man of short stature, about 5 feet tall and slight – no “bowl full of jelly” for his belly.
He was a cardinal in the early Church, and although he was not rotund like “our” Santa Claus, he did wear flowing red robes and sport a full, white beard. But what made Nicholas a model for the Christmas icon of goodwill and cheer was not his appearance. It was his compassion and seemingly limitless generosity that inspired a legend known around the world.
Nicholas’ parents were committed to their faith – in deeds, not just words. They gave to missionary work and helped feed the poor. They took Nicholas to church and enrolled him in theology and history classes where he learned to fully embrace the two greatest commandments in the Bible: to love God with all your heart (Matt. 22:37) and to love your neighbor as yourself (verse 39). These verses had a profound impact on Nicholas. But the act that truly distinguished him began with the failure of a family friend’s business. The man and his three daughters had lost everything. In desperation, the man negotiated with local brothel owners to sell his oldest daughter into slavery to provide for the younger two.
When Nicholas learned of this, he sprang into action. The night before the girl was to be sold, Nicholas went to their home, waited for the lights to go out and tossed a bag of gold through an open window, vanishing before he could be seen. This random act of kindness was not to be a one-time act of charity.
The money lasted the family a year. When it ran out Nicholas returned with another bag of gold, but this time the father caught him. Wiping away tears the man asked Nicholas, “Why did you give us these gifts?”
“Because you needed them.”
“But why didn’t you let us know who you were?”
“Because it’s good to give when only God knows about it.”
That answer would become the foundation for the legend still celebrated today.
In his mid teens, Nicholas faced tragedy when both his parents died, probably from the plague. The uncle he had been named after was a priest and took charge of caring for him. As the two prayed for understanding. Nicholas sensed an urgency to live out the lessons his parents had taught him. He felt the best way to honor them was to take his inheritance, cash it into gold coins and give it to the poorest families in the region. Satisfied that his act paid tribute to his parents, as well as his Lord Jesus, he then committed himself to study. Nicholas entered the priesthood before he was 20. The once wealthy young man now endured the trials of a young priest in a culture of corruption.
Under emperors Diocletian and Maximian, Christians were hunted and persecuted for 10 long years. Those who would not abandon their faith were often tortured or executed. As a church leader, Nicholas was jailed often. During those times, he would share the gospel with fellow prisoners and even prison guards.
Taking inspiration from the letters of the Apostle Paul, Nicholas encouraged those outside the walls to pray, support the work of faith and look to the Lord for strength. Soon after his release from prison, he was elected Bishop of Myra. He oversaw a period of rebuilding: feeding the poor, locating shelters for the homeless and finding familes for those orphaned during the persecution.
Because of his gentleness, compassion and love, and the fact that he always carried a bag filled with candy and gifts whenever he ventured out in public, scores of children followed him around. Due to Nicholas’ status with local citizens, Roman officials often sought his advice in matters of state. The influence he gained allowed him to work for the underprivileged and powerless, and in so doing he rose to the position of cardinal.
Yet what ultimately made him a legend was his love of children. As he grew older, he used more ahnd more of his funds to purchase gifts for children. Giving toys or candy to little ones, Nicholas told stories of Jesus and the gift He had given through His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. Then Nicholas would add, “Jesus loves little children, and He loves you.” Through these gifts, many began to understand the full measure of their salvation. Nicholas’ acts of service were so great that when he did, others picked up where he left off. Over time, the legend of Nicholas of Myra grew, and hundreds of churches were named after him.
St. Nicholas inspired the tradition of Santa Claus by his commitment to help others and leave the world a better place than he found it. He would be pleased to see the joy on the faces of children all around the globe at Christmastime, that his lessons of giving are still being taught and that children are made to feel especially loved on the day celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
Let’s tell his story and make it our own, so the true meaning of Christmas – love, peace, faith, joy, giving – is expressed as we honor the Prince of all of those things – the Lord Jesus Christ.
This article was taken from the December 2010 issue of Believer’s Voice of Victory.