When I was a boy I enjoyed Santa Claus at Christmastime. I loved fantasy and devoured anything with ghosts, goblins, and other fun myths and legends. I loved to use my imagination.
Then around high school, some Christians I trusted — ones who I realize now misused Scripture to justify and condemn according to their own preferences — got their hooks into me.
Fantasy and Harry Potter? They were of the devil, I “realized.” I was also sure that Santa can only “take Christ out of Christmas.”
I was under these delusions for much of high school and college. Only little by little, starting with some Christians I met in the Army and afterward with other good Christian friends I made, did I realize how far astray I had been lead in my youth.
Please don’t misinterpret me. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use discretion when it comes to the choices of media and stories in which we partake. What I am saying is that we should not condemn things as against God or a sin if they actually are not so.
Santa vs. Jesus?
In Christmas celebrations all too many Christians, sadly and misguidedly, seem to thrive on pitting Santa Claus against our Lord and Savior Jesus. They act as if it is an “either/or” proposition. Santa is “secular,” they say. Well, if he is secular, then that is largely the fault of society which has made him into a secular symbol.
But in the history of Santa going all the way back to Saint Nicholas himself, he was very much a religious, even Christian symbol. All of the more recent secular aspects to St. Nick are really window dressing our cynical age has foisted upon him.
“What’s this?” you ask. “Santa isn’t ‘Christian’ at all. He’s the fat guy in the North Pole who gives gifts. He takes the ‘Christ’ out of Christmas.”
I could continue with the false arguments and epithets, and false they are, as you will soon see as we trace the Christian lineage of the figure.
My standard is now to apply the Scriptures and do research (Biblical and otherwise), not just the prejudice of myself or someone I admire as a guide. It is this standard that has allowed me to enjoy Harry Potter and other fantasy again. It is this standard that caused me to become interested in Santa and to enjoy the myths about St. Nick once again. And it is this standard, and the desire to defend this legend, that has inspired me to write this two-part series for SpecFaith.
When I learned the details that I am about to share with you about the man and the legend of Nicholas, I became even more determined to refute the false arguments against this wonderful figure of imagination, peace, and service to God in the harshest time of the year.
Birth of a legend
The story of the true Saint Nicholas begins around 1,700 years ago. Nicholas, who was eventually made a saint by the early post-Apostolic Church1 was a contemporary and personal acquaintance on several occasions of Constantine, the Christian emperor of Rome.
Before Constantine’s rise to power, the empire was divided amongst four emperors. The four agreed to persecute the Christian communities in order to strengthen their hold on power. Three of the emperors, Diocletian, Galerius, and Maximian, embraced this idea of persecution with gusto. They instituted the final, yet also one of the worst, persecutions of Christians in the history of Rome. In this environment one of the youngest bishops of a large city or anywhere, Nicholas of Myra, rose to prominence.
When the persecution began, the young bishop could have fled to safe havens, including the part of the empire coincidentally overseen by Constantine’s father, Constantius. Constantius didn’t really agree with the policy, as evidenced by his lack of vigor in enforcing it. Barring some minor church burnings for “show,” he did nothing, and certainly avoided implementing the large-scale persecution enacted elsewhere in the Empire.
But Nicholas chose not to flee. He knew that if he escaped, the hunt for him would make the tortures and interrogations exerted on his flock much worse than they already would be.
So he stayed where he was in his home and awaited the inevitable arrest. When the Roman soldiers came, he calmly went to face torture and perhaps death. While many Christians would prove false and recant their faith under the flames, floggings, and other tortures of Rome, which were so hideous that the word “brutal” can not even begin to describe them, many more did not. Among these was Nicholas of Myra. After his confinement ended, his reputation for deep, unwavering faith in God soared.
Upon his release, the foundation of the myths would really be laid with random acts of kindness that Bishop Nicholas performed for others. Though some of the stories may not be true, there is enough commonality among so many varied accounts that most historians believe many are indeed factual. Often Nicholas gave gifts anonymously, and when caught he made the thankful recipient swear to never tell a soul during Nicholas’ lifetime. He insisted they thank God, not him. The Bishop took very seriously Christ’s admonition that God should get the glory and that He would reward us for what we did in secret.2
What really cemented the myth of Nicholas was that after his death the belief spread that his name could be successfully invoked by people in distress. It was not always seen as somehow “heretical” to invoke the name of a dead saint, as it was later on when the process of making someone a saint (and thus worthy of prayers) and most other functions of the Roman Catholic Church became increasingly corrupt before the Reformation and counter-Reformation. In the early post-Apostolic church people believed that if someone who had gone to be with the Lord was petitioning God in prayer in Heaven for us and God answered, that petitioner was a “saint.”
Granted, the process is more complicated, and there were other ways to be considered a “saint,” but that is the essence of how Bishop Nicholas was eventually recognized as one.
For those who object: Yes, it is true that all Christians are saints in the sense of being saved. But at the time the Church held basically two definitions of the word. These were the universal sense of all believers being a saint upon salvation, and the specific sense just noted, in which folks were made a saint not by official proclamation, but by popular belief.