Santa Claus based on kind, generous legendary bishop

Published 10:23 am Friday, December 6, 2013

By the Rev. Mark Boorsma
Ascension Lutheran Church

Saint Nicholas, the legendary Bishop of Myra who died Dec. 6, 342, is a prototype of the American Santa Claus. Acts 21:1 and 27:5 record the Apostle Paul’s travels through the coastal towns of Patara and Myra (in what is now Turkey). Christian communities took root in these towns, and produced a notable Christian whose name has come down to us in many a legend: Saint Nicholas.

His name in Greek (Nikolaos) means “conqueror of the people,” but his conquests were not of the military sort. He won the hearts of people through kindness and generosity. Having inherited wealth, Nicholas had the means to help many in need. One of the best-known legends concerns three young maidens in Patara who were about to be sold into slavery because of their extreme poverty. Three sacks of gold mysteriously appeared in their home. Though no one confessed to it, everyone suspected that Nicholas was the secret benefactor. One version of the legend (there are many!) says the gold was placed in stockings hung by the fireplace to dry. So at least two things still associated with Santa Claus — giving gifts anonymously and hanging stockings by the fireplace — have their origin in these stories.

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Admired for his kindness and Christian charity, Nicholas became bishop of Myra. Nicholas was among the Bishops present at the first ecumenical council of the universal church. This was the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, remembered for the statement of faith it initiated — the Nicene Creed. The saint’s death in 342 did not end the tales and legends that sprang up concerning his life. Nicholas became patron saint to children and sailors and came to be held in high regard throughout many lands. He became the patron saint of places far away from his home, even such faraway cities as Moscow in Russia and Bari in Italy.

Many centuries after his death, the bones of Saint Nicholas were transferred by sailors to Bari in Italy. The people in Italy called him “San Nicole.” His name was translated into many languages, taking many forms including Nicole, Nikolai, Klaas, Claus and Nick.

Legends of this kind and generous saint spread wherever Christianity spread, and Nicholas became popular in European countries. In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas Eve on Dec. 5 is a much-loved holiday. In the Dutch version, Nicholas comes from Spain by steamship every year to visit all Dutch children. He has a multiple helpers, all named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Black Pete has dark skin because he is a Moor. Children leave carrots and hay in their shoes as a treat for Sinterklaas’ white horse named Amerigo, upon which the saint rides to all the towns in Holland. Black Pete leaves a present for all children who have been good. But children who have been bad receive a willow switch and a lump of coal instead. I left my wooden shoes by the fireplace last night with carrots and hay. I’ll leave you to guess whether I found coal or a present this morning.