It’s interesting to me, as a Christian, to see what people think of Christmas. The crass, commercialised holiday we have in December doesn’t really have a lot to do with the real meaning of Christmas as I understand it. The dominant figure of the season isn’t a baby in a manger. Some would say that’s a good thing because the baby didn’t exist. I imagine, then, that they’re much more satisfied with the obviously real icon of all things festive, the jolly fat man in a red suit we call Santa Claus. There’s no way that’s not true.
It’s very easy to write a few hundred words about the what those horrible capitalist marketing people from Coca-Cola have done by creating the red-suited, white-bearded, rosy-cheeked Santa myth. But it’d be boring.
It’s much more interesting to take a bit more of a look at who Santa was. The original Santa Claus is far more interesting than 21st century version we see in toy shops and movies.
There has been a whole series of growing stories built up around the facts of a boy called Nicholas who was born in AD 280 into a wealthy family. His parents, it’s said in early histories, brought Nicholas up in the Christian faith and taught the sacred texts of the time.
Orphaned before manhood, Nicholas was left on his own in the world with nothing but a lot of money and knowledge of Jesus. He heard of a local man who had been left with nothing and had three daughters to raise. Without a penny to put toward dowries, they had been doomed to live an unhappy life of spinsterhood and prostitution. That thought horrified Nicholas so, late one winter night, he threw three small bags of gold into their home, some chronicles say via the chimney, and so saved the daughters from their fate.
As a seventeen year old, Nicholas went on pilgrimage to Palestine where he felt called to priesthood and so went on to be ordained. He went to serve in a monastery near Myra in Lycia, which is now in Turkey. While there, an old priest was reported to have had a vision that the new Bishop would be Nicholas.
The people of Myra elected Nicholas as bishop and he was known for his zeal and love of the Gospel. In these still-early days of the Church, the pagan gods of Rome and Greece were still the dominant religion. Nicholas made it his mission to challenge at the Temple to Artemis in Lycia.
Of course, the challenge of one man wasn’t going to overturn centuries of worship, and in AD 303, Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the persecution of Christians. As the “chief priest of the Christians”, Romans arrested, tortured and imprisoned Nicholas along with many of his flock.
It was 10 years later that Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, ordering an end to the persecutions and Nicholas and all other Christians were freed.
Nicholas had been beaten raw, but he had refused to renounce his confession of Jesus as his saviour. It was also reported by other Christians that Nicholas had spoken up on behalf of those falsely arrested for being Christian and that he went out of his way to help his people survive.
After Arius made the Arian assertion that Jesus was a created being and not in existence from all eternity, Methodius wrote that “thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected.”
It is also written by historians of near the time that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, where Arian doctrine was finally rejected, and that Nicholas had himself debated with Arius personally over the theological question of whether there was a time when Jesus did not exist. The debate was said to have ended when Nicholas punched Arius in the face and knocked him out right in the middle of the council floor at Nicaea as the emperor Constantine looked on.
Not quite the fluffy character you see on your Christmas cards today! In fact, quite far from it. He was a godly, charitable man who was persecuted, imprisoned and tortured for a decade just for believing in a baby in a manger. He was a passionate defender of his faith. He defended the weak, the needy, and the helpless against the ravages of famine, poverty and the persecution of the Roman empire.
He’s a lot more than a marketing tool for retail giants and fizzy drinks, even today.