Santa Claus is everywhere this time of year. I won’t lie, it used to bring me so much joy every time my daughter saw Santa, or any man with a long white beard, and she would say, “Ho Ho.” Each year, around this time, stories pop up claiming that Santa Claus is not Saint Nicholas, but rather a derivative of various pre-Christian, European folklore traditions.
Who was the real St. Nicholas?
St. Nicholas, a bishop in Myra in Lycia, now modern-day Turkey, was born to parents who, like Sts. Joachim and Anna, were unable to have a child. He became renowned for his devotion, kindness, and love for his flock, all of which led to his consecration as a bishop. He was devoted to Christ from childhood and, during Emperor Diocletian's reign, St. Nicholas was imprisoned and subjected to punishments and tortures for refusing idol worship. Despite his tribulations, he encouraged his fellow prisoners to remain faithful.
St. Nicholas also participated as a bishop at the First Council of Nicea, defending the Christian faith against the Arius who denied Christ's divinity, asserting instead that he was merely a man. Legend tells us that during a heated debate with Arius, St. Nicholas, driven by passion for Christ, struck Arius. Although initially expelled from the council by the other bishops, he returned after they had a shared dream in which the Virgin Mary instructed them to do so because St. Nicholas' his anger was rooted love for Christ.
St. Nicholas peacefully passed away at around 73 years old. His relics remained incorruptible, and an oil which led to many healings flowed from them. In 1087, his relics were moved to Bari in Italy, where they remain to this day.
How to talk about Saint Nicholas and Santa at home
One of the best ways to talk about St. Nicholas is to celebrate St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. This is a great time to celebrate with kids during the more somber tone of the Advent fast. In our home, as part our combined Anglican and Orthodox traditions, our daughter's shoes by the front door and fill them with gold coins (typically chocolate ones, readily available at stores like Target during the Christmas season, or specialized ones with Saint Nicholas imprints available from Paidea Classics), fruits, peppermints, or little trinkets.
The gold coins are essential because they recount an integral part of the story from the life of St. Nicholas. According to tradition, there was a man who had three daughters but no money for dowries for them, leading him to consider selling them. As each daughter came of age, Saint Nicholas anonymously provided three gold coins as a dowry - a tradition we continue by placing gold coins in the children's shoes. Some families use oranges as symbolic gold coins. The second daughter came of age, and St. Nicholas returned and left her dowry as well. When the third daughter was of age, her father caught Saint Nicholas in the act of leaving the dowry. Saint Nicholas, in turn, urged him to give thanks and dedicate his life to God.
There are great books that you can read every year with your family. For example, during our St. Nicholas Day celebration at my former parish, a parishioner read St. Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins. I heard that St. Nicholas made a surprise appearance every year, gifting all the children with gold coins, while I was briefly away. Unfortunately, by the time I returned, he had left. This year, we're reading a book your family may also enjoy with the kids at our parish, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Another great resource for younger kids is the St. Nicholas Learning Cube.
A few years ago, my wife and I read an article from a mom who explained how her family balances Santa and being open with their children. My wife and I liked the premise, but we worked together to incorporate Santa into our home while shining light on the real St. Nicholas and our focus on Christ’s birth.
We will never tell our daughter that Santa is real. I know this may be hard for some people to read, but please, hear me out. Our daughter gets her shoes filled and will open presents on Christmas morning. Once she is old enough and asks us if Santa is real, we’ll be honest with her. We’ll tell her that St. Nicholas was a real historical figure who loved Christ and his compassion for humanity. We’ll explain that he was known for his generosity and kindness, and that we want to honor him by leaving gifts in secret for her. We’ll also encourage her to help us honor St. Nicholas by picking out someone she can secretly leave gifts for, just as St. Nicholas did.
We’ll teach her that St. Nicholas’ love for Christ was so great that he gave to others selflessly, and that we can express our love for Christ by imitating St. Nicholas. We’ll explain that just as God gave the greatest gift to all of us in the Incarnation 2000 years ago, we can give gifts with no expectation of recognition or return.
During this busy time of year, let’s all take a moment to slow down, reflect on the life of St. Nicholas, and the lessons he left for us. As we, like the Magi, continue to approach the cave, let’s remember the importance of selfless giving and emulating the love of Christ.
The truth of things revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith, a model of humility, and a teacher of temperance. Therefore thou hast won the heights by meekness, riches by poverty. Holy Father Nicholas, intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved. - Orthodox Troparion to St. Nicholas
About Thom Crowe
Thom was ordained a deacon in the Orthodox Church before joining the Anglican tradition, works in tech marketing marketing, am is dad to a sweet little girl and husband to a great wife who runs the Made Shop. He's an avid reader, beer aficionado, lover of theology and history, and insufferable coffee snob. Thom says he has a pretty happy life in Tulsa, OK.