December 13, 2012

My Favorite Santa Claus Story

by Nathan Busenitz

There are a lot of Santa Claus stories floating around this time of year. Almost all of them are completely based in fantasy. Flying reindeer; a sleigh full of gifts; precarious chimney climbing; a fluffy red suit — all of that is total fiction.

But when my kids used to ask me, “Dad, is Santa Claus real?” I didn’t say “No.” In fact, I answered in the affirmative.

(Pause for dramatic effect.)


Like any good student of church history, I explained that Santa Claus was actually a fourth-century pastor named Nicholas of Myra who was later considered a saint by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. He was a favorite of Dutch sailors who called him, “Sinter Klaas” (or “Saint Nicholas”) which then came into English as “Santa Claus.”

Of course, I was careful to point out that the modern American version of Saint Nicholas bears absolutely no resemblance to the fourth-century pastor from Asia Minor. The real Nicholas did not live in the North Pole. He was not Scandinavian. He did not drive a team of magical caribou. He did not work with elves. Nor did he travel the world every Christmas Eve exchanging presents for milk and cookies.

No, he was a pastor. He worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ. And he would have been appalled at the way his legacy has been used to obscure the true meaning of Christmas.

But I digress…

NicholasMy point in this blog post is to relate my favorite story about Nicholas of Myra — the real Santa Claus.

There are several historically-based legends about Nicholas — stories about his incredible generosity to the poor (which is where the connection between Santa Claus and gift-giving originates); and stories about how he secured the release of three innocent prisoners who had been condemned to death. But my favorite legend of them all involves the Council of Nicaea in the year AD 325.

That council, of course, centered on one primary doctrinal issue: the deity of Jesus Christ. A heretic named Arius, not unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses today, adamantly denied that the Son of God possessed full ontological equality with God the Father. So the Council of Nicaea convened to discuss the controversy, ultimately concluding that Arius was wrong and that his teachings should be condemned.

It is in that context that we pick up this fascinating story about Santa Claus. Author William J. Bennett explains the story well:

Tradition says that Nicholas was one of the bishops attending the great council [of Nicaea]. As he sat listening to Arius proclaim views that seemed to him blasphemous, his anger mounted. He must have asked himself: Did I suffer through all those years in prison to listen to this man betray our beliefs?

His anger got the best of him. He left his seat, walked up to Arius, faced him squarely, and slapped his face. The bishops were stunned.

Arius appealed to the emperor himself. “Should anyone who has the temerity to strike me in your presence go unpunished?” he demanded.  . . .

[Consequently,] Nicholas found himself under lock and key in another wing of the palace.

But in the end, the bishop of Myra got the result he wanted. When the arguments were done, the council rebuked Arius for his beliefs. The bishops drew up a statement that came to be known as the Nicene Creed, which affirms faith in the Holy Trinity and declares that Jesus is “of one substance with the Father.”

Perhaps Constantine secretly enjoyed watching someone put Arius in his place. Perhaps some of the bishops admired Nicholas for standing up forcefully, if overzealously, for his beliefs. Nicholas must have had friends and supporters in high places, because when the Council of Nicaea concluded, he was set free and his clerical robes were restored.

(William J. Bennet, The True Saint Nicholas [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009], 38-40.)

So there you have it: the man our society has dubbed “jolly old Saint Nick,” upon hearing Arius openly deny the deity of Christ, became so incensed by Arius’s blasphemy that he stood up, traversed the room, and slapped the heretic in the face — in the midst of an imperial council for all to see.

That is pretty dramatic!

It’s possible, of course, that this account is only legendary. But even if it is, it is by far my favorite Santa Claus story.

It reminds me of the fact that the real “Saint Nicholas” worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ. He was zealous for Christ’s honor and unwavering in his doctrinal convictions. He was even willing to confront error and heresy head on if necessary. (And not merely by putting coal in Arius’s stocking.)

In the midst of a holiday season in which our culture tries to obscure the real meaning of Christmas by pointing to Santa Claus, I like to remind people that — if the real Santa Claus were still alive — he would be pointing people to Christ.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Gus

    You had me at church history… We were talking about Nicholas with our boys. Thanks Nate!

  • Annemarie Williams

    Thank you so much for this post. I can’t wait to share it with my kids!

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  • Scott

    One of my favorites as well. Here’s a great little video version of this same episode from Dr. Timothy Paul Jones.

  • Melissa

    Eloquent. Succint. Well done.

  • I think you should add this picture to your post, and to your syllabus.

  • Hello Nathan, As you may not be surprised the Armenians have a twist to this legend. it was Bishop Nicholasian, who are known for slapping people in the middle of meetings, weddings, whatever..also his frustration was really bottled up anger that the first nation to have accepted Christianity as their national religion was not formally invited to the council……….anyways. that’s my most favorite version of the story. (ok so I am being creative about it, but if it causes a laugh, then it was worth it)………….i also agree with Mike about the pic in addition to the eastern orthodox stuff I prepared….

  • Mark Truso

    Great blog Nathan, but it should also be pointed out that Santa Claus is an American invention and a terrible
    corruption of the original saint who you aptly describe above.

    So, when did Saint Nicholas transform into Santa Claus?

    The switch occured in the early 1800’s when tens of thousands of
    Dutch immigrants settled in the northeast part of the US. (In fact,
    the original name of New York was New Amsterdam!)

    These new immigrants included Catholics who brought the
    custom of honoring the Saint by putting shoes out, retelling the stories of
    Nickolas’ great deeds and virtue with plays & parties etc.

    BUT, there were also Protestant immigrants who were mostly
    from the austere Dutch Reformed Church who did not believe in the communion of
    and veneration of saints. They also did not believe in a hierarchy of clergy
    (Bishop, priest, deacon) and did not
    have a calender of saints and Holy Days, except for Christmas & Easter.

    The problem arose when Protestant children became jealous of
    the Catholic kids receiving gifts and goodies while they received none at all.

    Sympathetic Protestant parents decided to modify the
    Catholic custom so their children could get treats.

    Because of their fierce anti-Catholic theology they needed
    to make some major changes. First,
    having their Protestant children receive gifts from the hand of a “Katlick
    looking Bishop” wearing full vestments was repugnant. So, the
    tall/thin Saint Nikolaus now became a short/fat rolly-polly clownish figure. His stately mitre (the tall triangular
    bishop’s hat) was now soft and slumped over.

    The second problem was they needed to move the arrival of

    this new Santa Klaus from a Catholic holy day to a day that would distance it
    from the Catholic saint’s day. Christmas Eve seemed acceptable and was chosen. Next, the truth of the real Nicklaus, would
    had to be changed to totally fictitious stories. This new mythology developed and expanded
    over the next 100 years.

    Obvious was the change from riding a horse to riding in a
    sleigh pulled by reindeer. Some of these
    changes became immortalized in the famous 19th century poem “A Visit From
    St. Nick” by Clement Moore (his wife’s family was Dutch Protestant.) Also,
    Nikolaus was no longer celibate but married to a wife “Mrs. Claus.”

    The rest is as they say “history” In typical American “bigger is

    better” fashion, Santa Claus became the vogue and was exploited around the
    world into a multi-billion dollar industry. This had the effect of turning
    Christmas Eve and Day into a collosal “gift buying fest” —
    forgetting about the religious meaning of the day.

    Surprisingly, today’s “Evangelical Christians”
    (many of whom are the spiritual descendants of these Dutch
    Protestants) often cry that the Birthday of Jesus has become
    “commercialized.” However,most don’t even know their own history.
    They only have to look back to their own spiritual ancestors who messed things
    up. If only they would of left Saint
    Nicklaus to his day (Decenmber 6th —a full 3 weeks before Christmas Day) the
    25th would certainly be more sane, less commercialized and perhaps more focused
    on Christ! — Mark Truso

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