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The Mystery of Saint Nicholas

by Darren Johnson

Before we put the last holiday trinket back into storage and bid our final farewell to the Christmas season, here’s a question that’s been gnawing at me.  I’m sure it’s one lots of parents have wrestled with:  What should I tell my kids about Santa Claus?  

            I’m still a novice at this whole parenting shtick.  So whatever I say here serves as a preliminary report, not the final answer.  But contrary to NORAD, Santa just doesn’t register on my radar.  At best, the man-in-red is a charming holiday tradition and a convenient scapegoat for missing cookies!  “Yet, I worry that for many kids (and parents) his enormous bag of toys overshadows the Messiah in a manger.”

            Here’s an idea:  Let’s ask St.  Nick himself!    

            Have you heard about the real Saint Nicholas?  Maybe not.  He doesn’t get the kind of press he deserves.  You see, about two hundred years ago he fell victim to history’s most egregious case of identity theft.  Back when New York City was still called New Amsterdam, Dutch settlers celebrated the story of Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas), the patron saint of children.  Each year on the Eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 5), legend said that the kindly bishop would secretly slip a small present in the wee ones’ wooden shoes. 

            All that changed when a group of enterprising New York merchants (the “Knickerbockers”) translated Sinterklaas into a mass-marketing mogul.   As early as the 1820s, his image was being used to hawk Christmas merchandise across the Five Boroughs.   Under the newly Americanized guise of “Santa Claus,” the saint underwent a thoroughly secular makeover.  He traded in his stiff bishop’s mitre for a floppy woolen cap.  He started packing on weight, took up pipe smoking, and converted to neo-pagan Scandinavian folk religion.  Nowadays, you’d never guess that this portly, chain-smoking Norseman was once the most beloved saint in Christendom. 

            The real Nicholas lived about 1,700 years ago in the city of Myra, now part of southwestern Turkey.  Imprisoned for his faith during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian (303 – 311), Nicholas became a respected leader of the Christians in that region, eventually serving as their bishop.  His concern for the poor and love for children made Nicholas the stuff of legend. 

            But perhaps his biggest claim to fame occurred at the historic Council of Nicaea.  Convened in 325 at Emperor Constantine’s summer palace, the council met to debate the nature of the Christ’s relationship with the Father.  Was the Son eternally begotten of the Father and hence fully divine, or was the Son a quasi-divine being created at some point in time by the Father?  Nicholas staunchly championed the full divinity of the Son.  In fact, the story goes, he became so incensed with the arch-heretic Arius that he punched him in the kisser!  

            At issue for Nicholas was the mystery at the heart of Christmas—indeed, the entire Christian faith.  If the child lying in a manger is not Emmanuel, “God with us,” but some semi-divine creature, then Christ is not the world’s true Savior.  Only God—and no one else—can truly save us from our sins and deliver us from death.  Nicholas and his supporters agreed that the truth of the Incarnation, the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14), is absolutely essential to the hope of salvation. 

            I sometimes wonder what Nicholas of Myra would think of our modern Christmas celebrations and all the attention given to his Americanized namesake.  Allow me to make a bold prediction.  Were the real Saint Nick alive in the flesh, he’d give Santa the proverbial five-knuckle sandwich, right on his rosy, dimpled cheeks!  Either that or a firm reprimand:  “Stop standing in front of the manger, you overstuffed bowl of jelly.  Bow before Emmanuel, or take the next sled back to the 90th parallel.”      

            Now, don’t get me wrong.  I like Santa.  The two of us go way back.  (That Evil Knievel Big Wheel totally rocked!)  But I don’t for a minute buy the oft-repeated argument that Santa is somehow necessary to preserve the “mystery” of the season.   Bah humbug!  Equating mystery with “mythology” is deadly to Christian faith.  Rather, we confess with the apostles a mystery that occurred in history.  “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16; ESV). 

            So back to my original question:  What should I tell my kids about Santa Claus?   Whether or not they believe in some gnome-like creature who lives on a polar icecap, runs an illegal sweatshop, and collects data on little kids—kind of creepy, isn’t it?—really doesn’t concern me.  The way I see it, my biggest concern as a Christian parent is making sure my children hear, believe, and internalize the life-giving story of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God.  That’s job one.  The rest is ho-ho-hokum.  Harmless, perhaps.  But still hokum. 

            I’m sure the real St. Nicholas would agree.

-Darren Johnson is from Cythiana, KY. He lives in Cedar Rapids, IA and preaches for the Central Church of Christ

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