One of the points for which I argue in my latest book, Christianity and the World: Essays Philosophical, Historical, and Cultural, is that the civilization—the world—that atheist and theist alike take for granted today would be unrecognizable to itself if not for the religion that produced it: Christianity.
Take, for example, the “secular” figure of Santa Claus. The latter derives from the fourth century Bishop, Saint Nicholas, a real, flesh and blood figure and a devout man of God.
As Bill Bennett writes, the story of Saint Nicholas “stretches from the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa to the Americas and beyond. It crosses oceans, deserts, and frozen arctic climes.” Moreover, it “is an adventure tale complete with emperors, knights, villains, shipwrecks, kidnappings, treasure, and dark dungeons. It is the age-old struggle of good against evil, or right against might.”
Most importantly, though, Saint Nicholas “matters to Christmas,” for his “influence that has come across so many centuries is a kind of miracle. It is evidence of God’s love.”
Nicholas—which means “people’s victor” in Greek—was born in 280 A.D. in Lycia, a province of the Roman Empire that was located in what today is known as Turkey. He was born to Theophanes and Nonna, a relatively affluent couple who, in spite having been married for several years, had been unable to conceive a child until, after much praying, God blessed them with Nicholas.
The family resided in Patara, the town in which Nicholas was raised.
After his parents died from a plague that decimated many of Patara’s families, Nicholas went to a monastery to live with his uncle and namesake. Shortly thereafter, he began preparing for the priesthood. It was at this juncture that he proceeded to give away the wealth that he inherited from his parents.
Some of his resources Nicholas used for the benefit of a family in Patara, a once-wealthy father of three daughters who experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes and now found himself destitute. This is perhaps the most famous of Saint Nicholas’ stories, and undoubtedly the one more than any other that would give rise to Nicholas’s reputation as the world’s most famous gift-giver.
In those days, a man was expected to pay his daughter’s prospective husband a dowry for marrying her. But given this man’s poverty, he couldn’t afford a dowry for one of his daughters, let alone all three of them. This was a pressing problem, for to prevent his family from starving to death, the only alternative to marrying his girls off was to sell them into slavery.
Nicholas found out about the man’s plight. On three separate occasions, late at night when he was sure that everyone was asleep, Nicholas threw sacks of gold through the window, providing dowries for all three daughters. Shortly after Nicholas provided for the third daughter, the father, who had been hiding in the hopes of discovering the identity of his heretofore anonymous benefactor, ran after Nicholas. Upon realizing who he was, the man bent his knee and began kissing Saint Nicholas’s hand. Get up, Nicholas told him, and thank God instead.
Revealingly, Saint Nicholas instructed the man to tell no one what he had done for him and his daughters.
Saint Nicholas was tortured, beaten, and starved for years after being imprisoned by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who blamed Christians for the Empire’s problems. While incarcerated, Nicholas continued to preach the Gospel to the other inmates. But when Constantine assumed power and sought to make Christianity the religion of the Empire, the reign of Christian persecution ended.
Nicholas was a free man.
He is said to have been among the bishops that attended the famous Council of Nicaea, the event that produced the Nicene Creed.From this point onward, Christians the world over would affirm that God the Son, Jesus, was of one substance with His Father. The controversy resulted in the routing of Arianism, the heresy that denied Christ’s divinity. It is said that Nicholas so detested this corruption of the faith that he actually assaulted its founder, Arius, by slapping him across his face.
According to reports, Nicholas did some wonderful things. Once, while attending to the hungry in a region that had been ravaged by famine, Nicholas discovered that a butcher had murdered three boys, stuffed their bodies in a barrel, and attempted to sell them off as ham. Nicholas spoiled the butcher’s plot and restored the boys to life.
Another time, a ship was in port in his hometown. People were hungry. Nicholas prevailed upon the sailors to spare some of their wheat. Initially, however, they were reluctant to do so, for they were entrusted with getting the wheat to the Emperor, Constantine. Yet what they soon discovered is that when they reached Constantine, they had exactly the same amount of wheat that they had before they encountered Nicholas—even though they agreed to give the Bishop enough to feed the residents of his town for the next two years.
Still another story tells of Nicholas, after boarding a ship en route to the Holy Land, rescued the ship’s sailors and passengers from a brutal storm by praying to God for relief.
There are legions of other stories regarding this servant of God. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students in cities and countries around the world.
Even today, he remains the patron saint of all of Greece, a giant figure in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Unfortunately, space constraints preclude a recap of the long but fascinating journey through the centuries from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus. Still, what has been written here should suffice as a reminder that even so-called “secular” Christmas symbols like “Santa Claus” are the products of a rich religious, Christian legacy.
To know about Saint Nicholas is to see Santa Claus in an entirely different, truer light.