(Picture from http://www.stnicholascenter.org. The picture in the upper center is a computer generated image taken from the actual skull of Saint Nicholas. The designers regenerated the image of Nicholas using 3D techonology.)
Is Santa Claus real? Certainly no rational person would ever ask that question would they? Well actually, yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus. What? Some may ask if I have been smoking Colorado’s new tobacco. No, but Santa Claus is a real person. Let me explain.
Santa Claus is a dutch title meaning St. Nicholas. “Santa” = “Saint.” “Claus” is short for “Nicholas.” Although traditions and legends originate from Saint Nick, there are reasons for believing that Saint Nicholas was a person of history. Being a person of faith in Christ, we can even legitimately believe that Nick is in heaven with Christ. Early testimony as early as the fourth century recognizes St. Nick as a person of history also being the Bishop of Myra. Let’s take a brief look at the life of Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century AD in a village named Patara which is on the southern coast of Turkey. Although an Islamic nation now, ancient Turkey was a Christianized nation. As a matter of fact, I believe a treasure cove of early Christian writings may still exist in many locations of Turkey.
Unfortunately, Nicholas lost both his parents at an early age due to an epidemic in his area. Nonetheless, Nicholas’ parents taught him to be a devoted Christian during their brief time with him. Nicholas’ parents were fairly wealthy and left him with a substantial inheritance. However, Nicholas read the words of Jesus addressing the Rich Young Ruler in Mark (See Mark 10:17ff) and felt God speaking to him through this Scripture. Nicholas decided to sell all that he had and give it to those in need. The church took note of this and arranged for Nicholas to become one of the youngest bishops ever. Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra.
One tradition states that Nicholas helped a man and his three daughters. In Nicholas’ day, fathers would pay a dowry to prospective husbands in order to provide their daughters a good future. The better the dowry resulted in a better prospective husband. Unfortunately, not only did the father not have enough to issue a dowry for his three daughters, he barely had enough to support himself. The father was facing bankruptcy and would be forced to sell his daughters into slavery as was the result of ancient bankruptcy. Nicholas noticed an open window. Nicholas, knowing that the family was in need, walked by and threw a bag of gold through the open window into a shoe drying by the fireplace. The father used the dowry to arrange a wedding for his eldest daughter. Later, Nicholas threw a second bag of gold through the open window. The father used the gold to arrange a wedding for his second daughter. The third time, the father caught Bishop Nicholas and said, “So, you’re the one who’s been supplying us with gold. Thank you.” Embarrassed, Nicholas said, “Thank God. Don’t thank me.” (http://www.stnicholascenter.org).
Saint Nicholas was known throughout the land for his love and charity. But, he was also known for his devout faith. Emperor Diocletian was a great persecutor of Christians. As Diocletian (or Nero depending on the dating of Revelation) exiled John the apostle to Patmos, so Diocletian exiled Saint Nicholas for his faith in Jesus Christ. It is said that in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD there was no room for murderers, theives, and robbers because so many bishops and deacons were imprisoned (http://www.stnicholascenter.org).
Nicholas was released and was one of many who attended the famed Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Contrary to popular (or shall we say “liberal”) belief, Christianity arose from apostolic teachings which came from Jesus Christ. There was not a competition for belief. There was orthodox belief and heresies that arose from synthesizing Christian beliefs with Greek philosophies (such as “Gnosticism”). The Council of Nicaea sought to unite the church and preserve truth. It was during this Council that the New Testament canon was established. Three main canons existed. They took and canonized books that were known to have come from an apostle in direct contact with Jesus or one who was associated with such an apostle. The only book that did not make the cut was the Didache. The Didache, a book that lists church procedures, could not be clearly linked to an apostle or an apostolic influence. Therefore, the Didache was not included in the New Testament canon, although it was in of one of the three canons used to form the final New Testament canon.
Nicholas was so devoted to the Lord that he once lost his temper due to a heresy. Arius was in attendance at the Nicaean Council. Arius tried to present a teaching that Jesus was not on the same ground as God. He was not as the Apostle John showed in his gospel the one and same as God, but less than God. Nicholas was so outraged that we went over and slapped Arius on the face. Everyone was astonished at this action and withdrew the bishop status from Nicholas. Nicholas later repented and the Bishops accepted Nicholas back on the Council and back as Bishop of Myra (http://www.stnicholascenter.org).
Known for his protection of children, help for the needy, and devotion to the Lord, Nicholas is remembered as a loving, charitable man of God. Nicholas entered heaven on December 6th, 343 AD. His cause of death is not certain. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Saint Nicholas was given mythological characteristics such as riding on a sleigh driven by flying reindeer and living in the North Pole. The more commercialized Christmas has become, the more mythology has been added to the character of St. Nicholas. If Saint Nicholas knew how much attention he was receiving and how little attention his Lord was receiving, he would probably tell us the same thing he told the poor father, “Don’t thank me. Thank God.”
However, we can learn a lot from the real Saint Nicholas. We can learn a lot about giving to the poor. We can learn about helping others without judging them for the cause of their impoverishment. We can learn about taking a strong stand for truth as Nicholas did, although he slapped Arius the heretic. We can also learn a lot about devotion as Nicholas worshiped God and the Lord Jesus Christ with his whole being.
A word of caution should be given to parents, as well. If you put Santa above the level of Jesus, don’t be surprised if your kids have a difficult time believing in Jesus after you tell them the mythology of Santa is not true. The most important thing at Christmas time is to focus on Jesus. That is what Santa Claus would want you to do.
God bless and have a Christ-centered Christmas,
Pastor Brian Chilton