While Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas time, there is another person who is just as strongly associated with Christmas. That person, of course, is Santa Claus. While it is wrong to emphasize Santa at the expense of Jesus, the two are not incompatible if you know the real story of Santa Claus.
To begin with, there really was a Santa Claus. He was known as Nicholas and was declared a saint by the Catholic Church after his death. December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ Day in the Catholic Church – just about every day is a celebration of some saint. Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus because of the way names get translated. Saint became Santa – just like all of those city names like Santa Fe, Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, etc. Nicholas was shortened to Claus. Thus Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus – both names mean the same thing.
There are lots of stories about the real Santa Claus and it is very difficult to determine what is actually real and what is legend at this point. What is widely accepted is that Nicholas lived from 270-354 in the region that is modern day Turkey. He was a devout Christian man who went on to become bishop of Myra.
Nicholas likely came from a wealthy family but was orphaned at a young age. He is known for sharing his wealth with gifts to the poor. Many of the stories associated with his gift giving are more likely tradition rather than truth but they involve placing coins in shoes left outside or tossing coins into socks that were hung by the fireplace to dry. Another popular story involves Nicholas paying the dowries of three poor girls in order to prevent them from being forced into slavery.
After Nicholas’ death he was declared a saint and his legend grew. Every culture seems to have its own stories about Saint Nicholas. These were certainly embellished but the idea behind them was to promote giving to others and aiding the poor.
Our modern day Santa Claus most likely originated in 1821. In the book Children’s Friend “Sante Claus” appears from the north with a sleigh led by flying reindeer. It’s impossible to know the origin of this version of Santa Claus but it is a likely adaptation of numerous cultural traditions that had become associated with Saint Nicholas through the years.
In 1823 the man we know as Santa Claus became solidified. It was then that “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published. We know the poem better today as “The Night Before Christmas.” Ever since, Santa Claus has been a jolly elf with flying reindeer.
While we should be careful not to emphasize Santa Claus over the true meaning of Christmas, he can be a helpful reminder of what Christmas is about. The real Santa Claus was a man who gave gifts and helped the poor. He also serves as a reminder that God gave us the greatest gift of all at Christmas time. God sent us Jesus so that our sins could be forgiven at the cross.