When it comes to church history, the average church member is unfamiliar with many of the individuals God has used to shape His people throughout time. There is one ancient Pastor, however, that is spoken of frequently in christian homes. The legend behind Santa Claus is the fourth century Bishop Nicholas of Myra.
Nicholas was born March 15, 270 AD to a Greek Family in Patara, a village in what is now Turkey. He became the Bishop of Myra in Lycia. Incidentally, both Patara and Myra were visited by Paul during his missionary journeys.
Although he was born into a wealthy family, Nicholas lost his parents to a plague when he was a young child. During a trip to Jerusalem, Nicholas was converted and ultimately leveraged his inherited wealth on behalf of the poor children of his homeland.
According to one source, “He was known to frequently give gifts to children, sometimes even hanging socks filled with treats and gifts. Perhaps his most famous act of kindness was helping three sisters. Because their family was too poor to pay for their wedding dowry, three young Christian women were facing a life of prostitution until Nicholas paid their dowry, thereby saving them from a horrible life of sexual slavery.”
Nicholas lived during days of great persecution for Christians. Roman Emperor Diocletian, who reigned from 284–305, hated Christians and filled the Roman jails with them. Since Bishop Nicholas served during one of the great persecutions of the church, much of his adult life he was in jail, where he frequently faced routine beatings. But then something unforeseen happened once Constantine became emperor which has proven to be a pivotal moment in church history.
On Oct. 28, 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the Roman Emperor Constantine was battling to become the soul ruler of the Roman Empire. According to historians, at a decisive point in the battle, Constantine looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the words “by this, win!”, Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol, and thereafter they were victorious.
At the Edict of Milan, Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. Later in the Edict of Thessalonica, Christianity became the official state religion. From that point on, the Church was less influenced by Jerusalem and Judaism and it now fell under the influence of Rome and its pagan religion.
Constantine sought to establish unity of faith and practice throughout the new “state” church. The First Ecumenical Council was held in 325 at the summer home of Constantine in the city of Nicaea. It is said that there was hardly a man in the room that didn’t have the scars of persecution.
Hundreds of Bishops gathered there to refute the false views of Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria. Arius denied Christ’s deity. Among the Bishops gathered for the Nicene Council was Nicholas of Myra. He was among those in favor of affirming the Deity of Christ.
The Original Nicene Creed of 325 AD (popular version)
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.
At one point while Arius was addressing the council, Nicholas’s rage got the better of him. According to some of his biographers, Nicholas stood up, crossed the floor to Arius, and promptly punched him in the face. Maybe Santa wasn’t always so Jolly?
Because he Pastored in a seaport he became most popular among the Greek and Italian Sailors. He was their Bishop or Pastor. Keep in mind that most of these sailors had worshiped the Pagan Roman and Greek gods — so they were accustomed to praying to Poseidon prior to conversion. It was very common for converted Christians to replace their pagan traditions with Christian substitutes. Nicholas became the replacement for Poseidon and a type of Patron Saint for Sailors.
The year of Bishop Nicholas’s death is uncertain, but the month is firmly believed to be December. As the story of his generosity spread, the stories of his life grew and grew. He was becoming legendary. In the sixth century, a church was dedicated to him and named for him in Constantinople. His image was depicted more in the Middle Ages than any other except those of Christ and of Mary.
In the late 1100s the Catholic Church began to officially recognize Sainthood. It was after this that Nicholas was officially declared a Saint. December 6th became the day when the Catholic Church celebrated St. Nicholas. It really had nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but rather a celebration of this man, St. Nicolas the Bishop of Myra.
December 6th was a kid’s favorite holiday. That is when parents would hide toys in the kids wooden shoes if they were Dutch and in their Stockings in Germany. They got candy, it was great and very popular.
To reflect that legend, images of him carrying bags bulging with gold coins began to appear. As this legend moved northward, the story takes an even more interesting turn. In Germany, the tradition arose of giving gifts to each other in the name of St. Nicholas. This also became a tradition in the Netherlands.
The Dutch word for St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas. The German word eventually became Santa Claus.
These celebrations of gift-giving occurred on December 6, the anniversary of his death. The gift of a gold coin was highly prized and showed great favor.
In the midst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther wanted a Protestant alternative to the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Instead of giving gifts in the name of Santa Claus on December 6, Luther started the tradition of giving gifts in the name of the Christ child, Christkindl, on Christmas Eve.
The word Luther coined, Christkindl, also evolved over the centuries. It would become Santa Claus’ other name, Kris Kringle. This effort of Luther’s to move away from the Santa Claus tradition inadvertently veered right toward it.
As the Reformation continued to mature, St. Nicholas fell out of favor with Protestants, who did not approve of canonizing certain people as saints and venerating them with holidays. Yet, over the next few hundred years, the people’s desire to celebrate St. Nicholas didn’t go away. The protestant church was divided on whether or not to celebrate Christmas.
As a result, the Puritans in America began to combine St. Nicholas Day and Christmas, but they would often celebrate on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.