Do You Know The True Story Of This Christmas Legend?

Christmastime is here, and families everywhere are enjoying this time of peace and goodwill as we celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Christmas is a time steeped in traditions that we practice year after year, passing them on to our children.  All over the world, Christmas traditions are kept in different ways — many date back hundreds of years and will continue to be kept for generations to come.

One tradition that is especially important to our children is the yearly visit from Santa Claus.  Each country has their own unique depiction of the jolly old soul, but he remains one of the most enchanting and important parts of the history of Christmas.

So how did Santa Claus become so ingrained in our traditions, and how does he relate to the birth of our Savior?  Our modern-day Santa Claus has evolved throughout history from documentation of the true St. Nicholas, who was born in the year 280 in Patara, Lycia in present-day Turkey.

His importance in Christian history and emergence as a Christmas figure is documented through thousands of years of oral history that was then written down in later centuries.  Nicholas’ legend provides a way for us as parents to tie modern Christmas traditions to the true meaning of the season.

He is said to have been born into a wealthy family but was known to be generous from a young age, keeping none of his family’s riches by instead giving it to those in need.

Oral history of the region states Nicholas began performing miracles as a young boy and was often referred to as “Nicholas the Wonder-Worker.”  As he got older, word of his faith and miraculous works preceded him and he was appointed as the Bishop of Myra.

As bishop, Nicholas and many other Christians were persecuted for their beliefs.  Christianity Today reported on the trials he experienced for his faith:

It wasn’t long before Diocletian and Maximian began their persecutions of Christians, and the new bishop was imprisoned.  When Constantine became emperor, Nicholas was released with countless others and returned to his preaching only to find new threats [to Christians].

Even by the reign of Justinian (d. 565), Nicholas was famous, and the emperor dedicated a church in Constantinople to him. By the 900s, a Greek wrote, “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection.” The West became even more interested when his “relics” were taken from Myra to Bari, Italy, on May 9, 1087. He’s said to have been represented by medieval artists more frequently than any saint but Mary, and nearly 400 churches were dedicated in his honor in England alone during the late Middle Ages.

 St. Nicholas was referred to as a “Confessor,” one who praised Christ publicly in times of persecution, no matter the penalty — which could include imprisonment, torture, exile, or execution.

Following his death on December 6, 343, his followers began celebrating this day in his honor.

One of the most popular legends surrounding St. Nicholas was that he threw bags of coins through the window of three young girls in order to save them from prostitution.  It is said that he continued to bear gifts to the needy through his lifetime in much the same manner, helping everyone he could.

December 6th continues to be regarded as St. Nicholas Day, with many European countries celebrating his feast day by having their children put out their shoes the night before to be filled with treats by the saint.  This tradition is an ode to Nicholas’ practice of leaving money in the homes of the needy during his lifetime – and our tradition of hanging stockings for Santa can be traced to the European celebrations of December 6th.

Biography reported on the evolution of St. Nicholas in Europe, and how he came to be the most famous symbol of Christmas all over the world:

Over the years, stories of his miracles and work for the poor spread to other parts of the world. He became known as the protector of children and sailors and was associated with gift-giving. He was a popular saint in Europe until the time of the Reformation in the 1500s, a religious movement that led to the creation of Protestantism, which turned away from the practice of honoring saints. St. Nicholas, however, remained an important figure in Holland.

The Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas, December 6. It was a common practice for children to put out their shoes the night before. In the morning, they would discover the gifts that St. Nicholas had left there for them. Dutch immigrants brought the legend of St. Nicholas, known to them as Sint Nikolaas or by his nickname, Sinterklaas, to America in the 1700s.

Once the legend of St. Nicholas was brought to America, his image changed and became what we know today’s Santa Claus to be.  Perhaps the most influential event in the creation of America’s Santa was an 1820 poem, now known as The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.

Biography continued:

St. Nicholas went through many transformations in America: Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, and instead of giving gifts on December 6, he became a part of the Christmas holiday. In the 1820 poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, he is described as a jolly, heavy man who comes down the chimney to leave presents for deserving children and drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. The cartoonist Thomas Nast added to the St. Nicholas legend with an 1881 drawing of Santa as wearing a red suit with white fur trim. Once a kind, charitable bishop, St. Nicholas had become the Santa Claus we know today.

Do your children ask about the origins of Santa Claus?  With the incredible legends surrounding this patron saint of children, parents can give some fascinating background on this time-honored tradition.

What are your favorite traditions surrounding St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus? Leave us your thoughts in the comments section.

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