Saint Nicholas of Myra, the real Santa Claus 

Published 12:21 pm Thursday, December 7, 2023

I write this on what is celebrated as the feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra in most western Christian countries, and it was the life of this generous man who inspired the character of Santa Claus. How that inspiration was somewhat stretched from a man who devoted his life to philanthropy to the apple-cheeked elf who pedaled Coca-Cola and went skiing down a snowy slope on a Norelco electric shaver remains unclear, but the man himself was indeed real.

His is also a story of how a loving and nurturing individual can shape the life of children, a story that might easily have turned out quite differently.

What we know is that Nicholas was born to a wealthy Grecian family around 270 AD and tragically as a child, he lost both parents. His uncle, a loving and devout man of faith, stepped in to raise his nephew, teaching him by example to follow God and live a life of service to all.

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It was in living this life that the legend of Saint Nick took shape. 

As a young man he heard word of the plight of three sisters who could not be married off as they had no dowry (That’s right, kids, unless you could quite literally pay a man to take a daughter off your hands, her future was one of bleak destitution. It should also be said that whomever decided to accept the dowry and marry her might be the last person on earth she would choose. Not a great time to be a female). 

Wanting to follow his Christian teaching of giving to those in need, legend has it that he dropped three bags of gold coins down their chimney…The story often stops there as lines are then drawn from Santa coming down the chimney bringing gifts to children around the world. But what should overshadow all of this is the fact that Nicholas inherited his family’s wealth as a young man. How easily that could have been squandered or hoarded for a life of pampered comfort—especially in Greece: ocean front villas, women, and while it would be centuries before Ouzo was invented, you get my drift. But the loving example of his uncle shaped his heart and in his devotion to follow God. 

Bishop Nicholas, until his death at age 73, gave the rest of his money away feeding the poor and caring for others. Centuries later he would be honored by the church for his staggering generosity.

I often wonder if Nicholas had been raised by a less nurturing or greedy relative, teaching a lifestyle of “I’ve got mine, you get yours,” how might that have changed the way Christmas is celebrated in this country. Surely he wouldn’t have bothered to give the sisters their dowries. There would have been no legend built around him. And without him, would we have kept Christmas strictly as a Christian feast day? A nice meal as one would have for Easter? Would gifts be exchanged? Saint Nick’s sole focus of saving lives through generosity morphed through the centuries into something entirely different in western culture. It somehow turned into wide screen TVs and ‘must have’ toys that parents worry over so as not to disappoint their children. I still have nightmares over those ugly Cabbage Patch dolls. Luckily, all we have to do is to reread Nicholas’ story to gently nudge us back to a different way of expressing real love.

Thank you, Bishop Nicholas, for devoting your entire life to the common good and giving us a shining example of ‘loving thy neighbor.’

And lest we forget—your uncle rocked.