The True Story of Santa Claus

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Is Santa real?

Yes, he is, and his true story involves a 4th-century bishop, a 19th-century Anglican, liturgical vestments, and an altercation with a heretic. The true story is so fabulous, only the kids would believe it!

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Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus

The name Santa Claus is a contraction of the name Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop from the city of Myra on the Mediterranean Sea, on the southern coast of modern Turkey.

Saint Nicholas has been celebrated for more than a thousand years. His feast day is December 6th, and since the Middle Ages many European countries celebrated the feast by giving gifts. The Dutch, in particular, celebrate Sinterklass, a feast in which Saint Nicholas dresses up in his traditional bishop’s vestments and arrives on a white horse.

The modern celebration of Santa emerged in late 18th and early 19th century New York, drawing upon the Dutch celebration of Sinterklass and combining it with elements of the English tradition of Father Christmas. Many of the details of the modern Santa were established by the authors of the day, including Washington Irving, and especially Clement Clark Moore, an Anglican professor, in his famous 1823 poem, “The Night Before Christmas.” Moore writes:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there

Bishop Santa

Santa’s appearance is instantly recognizable: red hat, white beard, red cape, white shirt. Many don’t recognize that these are the traditional vestments of a bishop!

The red hat is a bishop’s miter, the white beard is traditional for an eastern bishop, the red cape is a bishop’s chasuble or cope, and the white shirt is an alb or a rochet. The color red is often used for services led by a bishop, especially ordinations and confirmations, and expensive vestments would often use velvet, which would look like fur.

And then, of course, there is Santa’s girth. Bishops, too, are often in possession of “a little round belly,” as Moore described Santa in his poem:

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

Santa’s Generosity

Saint Nicholas was famous for his generosity, especially to the poor and children. Tradition tells us that he gave dowries to three young girls so that they could marry and would not be forced into prostitution. A later story tells of how he resurrected a group of three children who had been killed and pickled by an evil butcher.

Over time, Saint Nicholas became known as the patron saint of children. These themes were picked up and applied to the modern Santa, who similarly looks out for children, bringing them gifts they want or need. As Gene Autry sings in “Here Comes Santa Claus”:

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane
He’s got a bag that’s filled with toys for boys and girls again
Hear those sleigh bells jingle jangle, oh what a beautiful sight
So jump in bed and cover your head, cause Santa Claus comes tonight

Santa as Defender of the Faith

One of the earliest references to Saint Nicholas is the record of his attendance at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The Council of Nicaea was a monumental gathering in the early church, where a group of assembled bishops opposed Arius’ teaching that Jesus was not fully divine and not the eternal son of God. Instead, the bishops affirmed that Jesus Christ is of one being with God the Father and, therefore, fully divine.

In the spirit of Santa, I might say that all I want for Christmas is the two natures of Christ: fully human, fully divine!

During the Middle Ages, a legend emerged that Saint Nicholas had personally opposed Arius to the point of losing his temper and slapping Arius in the face. While there is no evidence this actually happened, the scene is striking to imagine. The story relates that the other bishops temporarily censured Nicholas. They stripped him of his miter until he repented and apologized for his fit of anger. But of course, if there was ever something to get angry about, the heretical denial of Jesus’ divinity is a good cause!

Making A List and Checking it Twice?

The actual heresy in the story of Santa is the idea that Santa is keeping tabs on children’s behavior. This is not Christianity but rather moralism, and it does not reflect the compassion and grace of Saint Nicholas.

We see this heresy in the song “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.”

He’s making a list and checking it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.

He sees you when you’re sleepin’,
He knows when you’re awake,
he knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake.

As a Christian, Saint Nicholas knew that all people are naughty, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our righteousness is not a matter of being nice, but rather the righteousness of Christ, which we receive by faith.

And so Saint Nicholas knew that Christian love is generous to children and others. He did so with the full knowledge that they had been bad. Nicholas imitated the love of God, his love for sinners. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).

The true story of Santa is in the Christian response to God’s love: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).


Image: lithograph of St. Nicholas by Johannes Henderikus Moriën (lithographer), J. Vlieger (publisher). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

December 6, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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