Who Really was Santa Claus?

Who Really was Santa Claus?

Many Christians ignore Santa. He is believed to have nothing to do with the “real” reason for Christmas. Much like the Easter bunny, Santa seems to be a pure distraction. Eliminate Santa and you will hopefully be able to more clearly see Jesus. This Christmas season, however, I am trying to allow every sighting of that big jolly fellow to take me deeper into Jesus.

I think you should actually increase your discussions about Santa. I think you should teach your children more, not less, about Santa. I think you need to get to know the real Santa. By getting to know the real Santa, every sighting of him will remind you of the real reason for the season.

The real name of Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas of Myra. The name Santa Claus is a Dutch version of the name Saint Nicholas. His actual life is far more interesting than the whimsical stories made up later.

Early Life

A Christian man named Epiphaneas and his wife Nona always wanted to have a child. They lived on the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in modern-day Turkey. They prayed many times for a child but Nona remained barren. They determined if the Lord would work a miracle and provide a son they would, like Hannah in the Old Testament, devote the boy to the Lord. After 30 long years of praying a boy named Nicholas entered the world around 275AD.

Life was not easy in the 3rd century. In the ancient world, without modern medicine, most any disease could prove crippling or fatal. The local and federal government of the day did not provide social services. If people could not take care of themselves they would starve. Christians made a huge difference by loving those forsaken by other people. They provided hospice care for the sick, support for widows, orphans and the unfortunate. While Nicholas was still a boy a plague swept through his area. His parents, unfortunately, were both killed by the plague. What would become of Nicholas?

Around this time the old bishop of Myra (the nearby capital) died suddenly. Thousands, including Nicholas, came to the funeral and mourned the loss of their great leader. A Synod would be formed to decide who would step into the sudden vacancy. It was a huge responsibility to be the Bishop of Myra. Prayers and deliberations went on for days. Who among them could fill such large shoes? There was no consensus.

The story is told that the most revered bishop in the synod had a dream. In the dream he was told to rise early the next morning and stand in front of the doors of the cathedral. The next bishop of Myra would be the first person entering the sanctuary who answered to the name Nicholas. Nicholas awakened earlier than usual that morning and was strongly impressed to hurry over to the cathedral. As the young boy entered the sanctuary the old bishop asked him his name. Nicholas responded, “My name is Nicholas, your servant for Jesus Christ’s sake.” The old bishop declared this young boy to be the next bishop. Nicholas was the most stunned of all. He turned to run out of the cathedral but was stopped by a church official. The boy finally obeyed and was led to the bishop’s throne.

Bishop of Myra

As the boy grew he was not corrupted by the new power of his position. The people of Myra came to love the humility, honesty, energy, care and dedication of Nicholas to God and to the people of the community. When he taught about Jesus, people said listening to him was like receiving precious gems. Nicholas was genuinely concerned about the poor, those who were in trouble, those who were mistreated, and the children. His parishioners were quick to note that his giving tended to be done in secret, and many began to emulate him.

When Nicholas was in his early 30’s one of the greatest persecutions of all Christianity broke out. Emperor Galerius and Diocletian sought to destroy all Christians. Nicholas had the chance to go into hiding but decided to stay with his people and see what would happen. He was soon arrested and tortured for refusing to worship the emperor, he would only worship Jesus. Numerous times Nicholas was tortured to the point of losing consciousness. The persecutions of Galerius lasted a long 8 years.

In an obscure prison a man who had entered relatively young and strong was now leaving a different man. He was still pretty young but had been aged by torture, mistreatment and separation from the outside world. The frail, filthy, unshaven man would not be recognized as the stalwart bishop of Myra. Nicholas lost many things in prison, he did not lose his integrity. The “Boy Bishop” was a boy no longer. Nicholas was starting to become famous for his strength in the Lord.

Around this time Nicholas had a neighbor who had lost his fortune and was now destitute. The man had three daughters who were entering the age of getting married. At that time women could not get married unless the father provided a dowry. If the father was unable to come up with the money his daughters could not get married and would either be sold as slaves or enter into prostitution. The man prayed desperately for God to provide the money. In the middle of the night, on three separate occasions, Nicholas secretly provided the dowry by dropping bags of gold into the house (some claim they were dropped down the chimney). Nicholas rescued each of these women from lives of tragedy.

While all of this was going on an interesting thing happened that would elevate Saint Nicholas to an even higher level. Shortly after the terrible persecution under Emperor Galerius, a new emperor came to power. His name was Constantine. The story of Constantine coming to power and becoming the first Christian Emperor are amazing in their own right. Truth is certainly stranger than fiction. Here’s how it all happened…

Nicholas at the Council of Nicea

In 325AD, when Nicholas was about 50 years old, Constantine summoned the first world-wide gathering of all the bishops. He offered to pay the expenses for every bishop to travel to a place called Nicea. What would cause such an important, and costly, meeting to be convened? A major theological issue had arose and Constantine wanted all the leaders of the church to discuss the issue and see if they could agree on the Bible’s teaching on the subject.

A young mega-church pastor in Alexandria, Egypt started teaching something new about Jesus. In order to make the Trinity easier to understand Arius preached Jesus was not fully God like the Father. The Father, he stated, was the eternal God while Jesus had a beginning. Jesus was the greatest being ever created by the Father, but was not a coequal with God the Father.

The morning of May 20th, 325AD is an amazing moment in the history of followers of Jesus. 318 bishops arrived at Constantine’s opulent palace. The scene must have been surreal as these recently imprisoned and tortured men of God now gathered in safety to discuss their Savior whom they did not deny in the toughest of times. Some of these men gathering at the Council of Nicea had missing limbs, were blind, and severely crippled by the persecutions.

Arius was given plenty of time to articulate his views downgrading the greatness of Jesus. What happened next is told by the Athenian monk Damaskinos:

The emperor was sitting on his throne, flanked by 159 bishops to his left and 159 to his right. Arian was presenting his views with great vigor and detail. As Saint Nicholas observed the scene, the bishops listened to Arius in complete silence and without interrupting this discourse. Outraged, and prompted by his saintly vigor, he left his seat and walked up to Arius, faced him squarely and slapped his face.

What an amazing moment! Nicholas could not stand hearing one more minute of someone speaking against the Savior whom he so passionately loved. The assembly was schocked. The law of the day required Nicholas to be put in prison for such an act and to have his hand cut off. Nicholas was jailed but the story is that Jesus and Mary visited him in the middle of the night and unshackled Nicholas. Whatever happened, Nicholas was released from prison with his hand intact.

The 318 bishops went on to vote overwhelmingly that the Bible teaches Jesus is completely God, the same substance as the Father. Only one bishop voted with Arius. The Nicene Creed has been a beautifully powerful statement of Christian faith for almost 1,800 years.

Embrace Santa

The next time you’re in the car and pass by an inflatable Santa on someone’s lawn…pause. Redeem the cliché.

Look at the right hand of Santa, picture it slapping Arius. Think about those years of torture. Think how much that jolly fellow loved Jesus. He’s only giving gifts because of the great gift given to him in Jesus. Nicholas did not live a fairy-tale life. His parents died, he was tortured horrendously, yet his heart remained with Christ. Let Nicholas encourage your own walk with Jesus.

Let the bright red coat remind you of the bright red blood shed by Jesus for the salvation of Nicholas and for your salvation. Let the white parts of his clothing remind you that you are washed white as snow by the arrival, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Let that silly lawn ornament restore meaning to your life. Let the reality of your Savior’s arrival continue to be extraordinary. Don’t let it become ordinary.

20 Responses to “Who Really was Santa Claus?”

  1. And my wife and I were just discussing how our now 8 year old will react when he finds out there is no Santa Claus. As you said what a great reminder to the REASON for the SEASON. Thank you!

  2. Many of the little tidbits about St. Nicholas came from a great little biography by Joe Wheeler. You can get it here:

  3. Surely the fantastical story about Santa and the North Pole is lame. But do we know how trustworthy is the story about a young boy being made a bishop? (and how much of it borrowed from 1 Samuel.)

  4. I note you don’t include the story of how he miraculously resurrected three young boys who had been murdered by an innkeeper and pickled in brine.

    Relatedly, you hedge on the literal truth of his miraculous rescue by Jesus and Mary.

    What is the documentary evidence for these claims, and how does it compare to the evidence for, say, the resurrection of Jesus?

    Or do you reject these stories because of your a priori commitment to naturalism?

  5. Wonderful post. I wonder what St. Nicholas would think of his curious position in the culture today? Perhaps he’d be appalled at his having become the de facto patron saint of consumerism … or perhaps he’d embrace the spirit of the season in all its cheesy, but often strangely sincere, glory. Regardless, I’ll never look at a mall Santa in quite eh same way again.

  6. Thank you _so_ much for this. We’re about to start a short series in our church on the incarnation, and I had been hoping to include some stuff about the trinity, and link back to Christmas via the Council of Nicea and Saint Nicholas. Now it will be much easier :)

    (Oh, and I bought the book you mention, for completeness :) )

  7. Some elements of Nicholas story do sound fantastical, and this is common when reading of the lives of the saints. Then the allusion was made that maybe the Resurrection is in a similar vein, something fantastical or an exaggeration. I have some ideas about this, I come from the Philippines and in rural parts of my country many legends and stories of this nature are told. Most city folk (educated) reject it all as crazy talk. Yet, when I visit, I sense that the common people are more open to the miraculous, the atmosphere is one of humility towards the unknown. I tend to think that God works stronger in these environments and maybe reveals a little bit more of himself because these people can take it. It reminds me of several fantasy stories where the story ends with fairyland closing because the people have become so technological and knowledegeable that the supernatural is forced to withraw.

    Then again it is completely reasonable to accept that these stories have been exaggerated somehow, they do not have the same extensive witness and corroboration as the new testament.

  8. I have often told the story about Nicolas punching Arius a good one in the snoot for saying Jesus wasn’t God. Most people look at me like I have two heads. Thanks for a great article! And Merry Christmas!

  9. Anyone know the status of the motion picture

    Nicholas of Myra: The Story of Saint Nicholas

    I can’t find a projected release date from the website or the facebook page.

  10. Staircaseghost raises a good point.

    When so much of Christian tradition is shrouded in fanciful myths and legends, basically pious fabrications, how are we sure that none of Jesus’s story is not muddled by such?

    Jesus’s stories were indeed embellished in later centuries, especially, but not exclusively, in the Gnostic circles. But what about earlier traditions recorded in the NT? Were they accepted because they were early? or were they accepted because they were true?

    Any takers?

  11. Love that story, Ann Jones!

    Thank you!

  12. Depressingly often, a believer who finds himself back on his heels will invoke, as a bolt from the blue, “but you just have an a priori bias against miracles!”

    To give a sense of exactly how silly this objection is, it helps to deploy it in another bolt-from-the-blue context where the believer wasn’t expecting it, since the objection makes the person using it look silly.

    Here we have an article not only 1) written by someone who clearly is not “assuming metaphysical naturalism”, but is also 2) involving specifically Christian miracles surrounding 3) a figure the author holds in high moral and theological esteem.

    And yet the author is skeptical about miracle claims surrounding this figure!

    Believers, please, please, please remember this article about Saint Nick the next time you or an apologist you respect tries to pull this maneuver in a debate. Please, please, please try to understand how silly and desperate it makes the apologist sound when someone e.g. gives a late date to a passage in scripture because it has apparent knowledge of future events, and the apologist complains like a bolt from the blue, “your metaphysical naturalism rules out prophecy a priori!”

    If Christians don’t need to rely on metaphysical naturalism to be sceptical of stories about Jesus and Mary rescuing Santa Claus from prison, or the resurrection of three boys pickled in brine, then maybe, just maybe, nonbelievers are using the same reasonable measures of plausibility to conclude Jesus probably was not resurrected on Easter.

  13. Tim, that is one wonderful blog post and a well-written one at that.

  14. I apologize for not replying to the supernatural discussion happening above. The only, yes, the only reason I chose to question the supernatural visitation of Jesus & Mary in prison is because the biographers I leaned heavily on in this section also doubt the historicity of the story. Even the St. Nicholas Center believe this part of the story was developed later.

    The resurrection, however, is a completely separate historical event. The historicity of the resurrection is one of the most verifiable of all events…especially an event from antiquity.

    The best book about the historicity of the resurrection is by Dr. Mike Licona. Here’s a link to it:

    If you want to get the executive summary before reading the fully 900+ pages you can watch some video excerpts here:

  15. It cannot possibly be the case that your only criterion for whether a report is true is whether the people who reported it did or didn’t doubt it.

    “Well, the guy who’s telling me believes it, so it must be true!”

    Once again, what is the documentary evidence you are relying on?

  16. Very well done Tim. Loved it!

  17. Still doesn’t justify propagating stories about a white-bearded fat guy from the North who gives gifts to boys and girls who have been good throughout the year—and thus stealing the focus away from the REAL reason for the season.


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