In modern day America, we know him as Santa Claus. He is the round and ruddy old man who magically flies from home to home on Christmas Eve, delivering toys to good little girls and boys. This jolly old elf, also referred to as Pelznickel, Noel Baba, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas has a long history and has become a prominent character in many Christmas traditions.
Born in 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra of modern-day Turkey, the man named Nicholas graced the earth and was much admired for his piety and kindness. Known as a monk, legend recounts that he traveled the countryside, donating all his inherited wealth by caring for the poor and the sick.
St. Nicholas is famously known for saving three impoverished sisters from being sold into slavery by their father. Very late in the night Nicholas secretly bagged up his gold. He anonymously tossed the bag through the window and repeated the act two more times so that the family could use the money as dowries for each of the three daughters. Later legend adds that the window was locked, so Nicholas dropped the bag down the chimney, where it landed in a stocking waiting by the fire to dry.
The life of St. Nicholas, or the Bishop of Myra, was not always easy. When Nicholas was a young man the Roman emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, sentenced him to five years of solitary confinement because of his devout faith.
Despite his hardships, St. Nicholas never lost hope, but rather contributed to a massive cornerstone in the Christian faith. He participated in the Council of Nicaea where The Nicene Creed was established. The Nicene Creed is the defining statement of belief for mainstream Christianity, declaring that Jesus is divine and begotten of the Father.
Nicholas’s popularity spread throughout the years and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death which occurred on December 6, 343 A.D. and is considered by some to be a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married.
By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas became the most popular saint in Europe. He maintained a celebrated reputation due to his selflessness and charity, especially in Holland where he was known as Sinterklaas. Many families in Holland still celebrate Sinterklaas Day in addition to the Christmas holiday.
The maiden voyage of St. Nicholas into American culture happened towards the end of the 18th century, in December of 1773. A New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of Sinterklaas, a patron saint known for his gifts to children. The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch nickname of Sinterklaas and became a centerpiece of Christmas celebrations throughout America.
Though many of us are preparing to celebrate Christmas, you may be feeling weary of commercialism and manufactured expectations. If so, take a moment to ponder the life of Nicholas of Myra. Remember dear old Sinterklaas. He was a selfless, generous man who valued caring for other people. The sick. The poor. Those who needed him the most. This holiday season may the REAL Santa Claus inspire you to see the true joy and magic of Christmas.
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