By Adam Estle
*This article was originally published by Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU).
Have you found yourself pondering where the story of Santa Claus originated? You might also be asking yourself, “What does Santa Claus have to do with increasing my understanding of the Middle East?” We’re glad you asked!
To answer the century-old question posed by Virginia O’Hanlon, “Yes, there is a Santa Claus.” The name Santa Claus is an Anglicization of the Germanic ‘Sinterklaas’ which literally means Saint Nicholas. The Dutch and German settlers to America brought their beloved Saint with them to their new, mostly protestant (and non-Saint admiring) neighbors. The tradition became fused with the British Father Christmas (see Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” character “Ghost of Christmas Present”), and voila! Santa Claus was a huge hit!
Saint Nicholas, the man, was indeed a very real person. He was a Christian Bishop of Myra in Lycia, which is in present day Turkey. (Here’s the Middle East connection.) St. Nicholas lived in the 4th Century AD (15 March 270 – 6 December 343). If you don’t know, this was a supremely challenging time to be a Christian as the Roman Emperor Diocletian severely punished anyone affiliated with the new religion. Thankfully, this did not detour Nicholas. He made a name for himself, although not purposefully, as a gift giver – helping anyone he could, and trying to do it anonymously.
One of his most famous exploits involved a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night three consecutive evenings and threw a purse filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house. The third night the father hid to catch and thank whomever this gift-giver was. Nicholas begged for him to keep it a secret. As you might assume, this did not happen seeing that you’re reading the story 1,700+ years later.
For all of his works of charity, love, compassion and kindness he was imprisoned and beaten under the rule of Diocletian. When Diocletian died, Constantine came to power. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 which saw Nicholas released from prison and back to serve his community. In 325 Constantine held the 1st ecumenical meeting of Christians (the Council of Nicaea) which sought to set unity in Christian doctrine. Nicholas was a member of this council and famously punched a man named Arias who claimed that Christ was not divine. He later apologized, but added he could not bear to hear his Lord slandered. Regardless, he was quite instrumental in the formation of all branches of Christianity’s basic belief in the trinity.
While modernity lends itself to focusing more on Santa Claus than Jesus at this time of year, let us be reminded of who Saint Nicholas really was. He was a Middle Eastern Christian, and just like our brothers and sisters in the Middle East today he served Jesus through difficult circumstances.
Let Nicholas of Myra’s example (even if we see him dressed in red and white fur and drinking a Coca-Cola) remind us of how we should strive, despite adversity, to show the love that Jesus modeled. Through all the hype and consumerism that surrounds the contemporary view of Santa Claus, may we all remember who the real St. Nicholas was and how his story amplifies the true meaning of Christmas.
Please remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the Middle East, where Christmas is not a holiday in a majority of their communities. Pray that they would be able to carve out time and opportunities to celebrate Jesus’ coming to earth, not just during this season but throughout the year.