Dec. 6 is the celebration of the saint who is the real Santa Claus — St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas is the inspiration for the modern-day, Americanized Santa Claus. He lived during the 4th century in what is now Turkey, although it was a Greek province at the time.
“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
He was born to wealthy parents of Christian faith who died while he was still young. He became a benefactor to the poor and needy by using his inheritance to provide for those less fortunate. He often gave money in secret so that God alone would be glorified. St. Nicholas was persecuted for his Christian faith during his lifetime and died on Dec. 6, 343 AD. In honor of his life and his entrance into heaven upon his death, St. Nicholas’ feast day is celebrated.
There are many stories and legends about the generosity of St. Nicholas — and these have evolved into Christmas traditions. For example, it is said that Nicholas gave money to a poor man who had three daughters. The man could not afford their dowries and so he contemplated selling the daughters into slavery.
Nicholas went to the man’s house at night — in the spirit of secrecy — and threw money down a chimney or, more likely, into an open window so as to remain anonymous or give credit to the miraculous provision of God. The money supposedly landed in shoes or stockings that were left to dry by the fire. This is the foundation of the tradition of stockings hung by the chimney.
The famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” written by Clement Clark Moore, paints a vivid picture of a jolly man who used a flying sleigh and reindeer to deliver presents on Christmas Eve. This tale adds to the image that is now accepted as interchangeable between St. Nicholas the man and Santa Claus the legend.
Although American children typically anticipate their stockings to be filled on Christmas morning, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated primarily in Europe. In Germany, children leave their shoes outside their bedroom doors on the evening of Dec. 5, while children in the Netherlands leave their shoes by the chimney. Similar traditions have been transplanted here. The hope is to find coins, candy, fruit, or small presents on the morning of Dec. 6. On the other hand, there is also the dread of receiving nothing if one’s behavior has been less than satisfactory.
Families, primarily Catholics, who celebrate St. Nicholas Day in America help children think about doing a “Nicholas deed” for someone else, something that is kind and thoughtful. In addition to the small treats that may be put in their shoes as a reminder of St. Nicholas’ presents, St. Nicholas Day is also celebrated with a family feast and the effort to do something charitable or show compassion for someone else. People remember the saint’s kindness and selflessness by modeling their own behavior after his.
At church gatherings, someone often dresses up as St. Nicholas and comes to visit the congregation. Children may leave their shoes outside their church classes on the Sunday closest to St. Nicholas Day. There are churches that celebrate by encouraging children to bring canned goods for food pantries.
It is a time of worship through fellowship and giving.
Jesus tells His followers in Matthew 6:20-21: “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
St. Nicholas exhibited the love of Christ by sacrificing his own earthly treasures to bring joy to others. He is therefore revered and honored by both Protestants and Catholics as a man who gave what he had and therefore gained the blessing of God.
During the holiday season — which has so much potential to distract with busyness, commercial consumerism, checklists, and family tension — it is refreshing to remember a man who gave of himself to better the lives of people around him and honor his memory.
Katie Nations has been married for 15 years and is a working mother of three young children. She lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.