How Saint Nick Became Santa Claus

B.J. Funk

B.J. Funk

By B.J. Funk-

An ancient merchant had three lovely daughters. But due to a tragic turn of events, he had lost all hope that his daughters would be able to marry and live a happy life. It was the third century, and this businessman had lost his fortune when pirates pillaged his ship. His beautiful daughters were of marrying age, and without money he could give them no dowry. In those days, young women without a dowry had few options for survival. Many were forced into slavery or prostitution.

The father prayed around the clock that somehow God would grant a miracle for his family. A young Christian bishop discovered the plight of this man and his daughters. This bishop was a wealthy man, having received a large inheritance at the death of his parents. One evening, in the middle of the night, the bishop secretly slipped a sack of gold through a window into the merchant’s house. This timely gift saved the virtue of the man’s oldest daughter.

Later, another sack saved the second daughter. When the third sack came mysteriously in the night, the father was waiting up to see this mystery person. Immediately, he recognized the young bishop and tried to thank him.

The humble minister deflected the praise. “No, all thanks go to God, not to me.” This compassionate bishop believed literally Christ’s injunction that when we give, we should do so in secret, sacrificially in Christ’s name and not our own.

Through his timely gifts, Saint Nicholas helped to restore the hope of this family, and hundreds more in his community. But the ministry of Bishop Nicholas extended beyond giving gifts. History tells us that he was persecuted by the Roman authorities and imprisoned for his faith. Later, when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, Nicholas was released from prison.

After returning to his post as bishop, Nicholas was called upon to defend Christianity against the heresy of Arianism. A contemporary of Nicholas and an early church theologian, Arius taught that God the Father and God the Son did not exist together eternally. Arius also taught that the pre-incarnate Jesus was a divine being created by (and possibly inferior to) the Father at some point, before which the Son did not exist. Nicholas boldly defended the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicea. This was the first ecumenical council of the early Christian Church, and it produced the first uniform Christian doctrine – the Nicene Creed.

Throughout his ministry, Bishop Nicholas selflessly poured out his life and his fortune as he served the people in and around his home. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his inheritance to assist the suffering, the sick, and the poor.

Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians — and he is honored by Protestant Christians. By his example of generosity to those in need, St. Nicholas is a model of Christ’s call to selfless giving

In January 1809, Washington Irving published the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which made numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly European bishop, but rather a Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. The jolly elf image received a big boost in 1823 from a poem destined to become immensely popular, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” — now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.

Beginning in 1863, Nast began a series of annual drawings in Harper’s Weekly that were inspired by the descriptions found in Washington Irving’s work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and a clay pipe. Nast drew his Santa until 1886, and his work had a major influence in creating the modern American Santa Claus.

Though the modern Santa does not resemble the original Saint Nick, history takes us back to a simple Christian bishop who loved God and loved people. Bishop Nicholas displayed his love through the giving of gifts, just as our Heavenly Father gave the gift of His Son to us that first Christmas morning 2000 years ago.

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