The Story of Santa Claus, Part 1

Santa Claus is surely one of the most beloved figures of modern times. But did you know that he was perhaps even more beloved long before he acquired a fur-trimmed red suit, a big round belly, and nine flying reindeer to pull his sleigh? It’s true, the historical figure who would one day come to be known as Santa Claus was famous for his kindness and generosity. His story began less than 300 years after the resurrection of Christ in modern-day Turkey—just 500 miles or so up the coast from the boyhood home of the Apostle Paul. Even more fascinating is how his fame spread north and west, throughout Europe and eventually to America. From America, his fame spread all around the world so that today it is told in some form on every continent. As author William J. Bennet puts it, it is a “long and circuitous route,” so be prepared for a lot of history.

Nicholas of Myra

Our story begins with a little boy named Nicholas who grew up in Lycian Turkey, in a popular little seaport town called Patara. Unfortunately, our story also starts off sad. Nicholas’ parents became ill and died when Nicholas was still little. Thankfully, in a monastery not far from Patara, Nicholas had an uncle who would become his guardian. So Nicholas grew up much like the Biblical story of the prophet Samuel who spent his childhood in the Temple under the care of the High Priest, Eli. A key part of Nicholas’ history is that he was the sole heir to his parents’ substantial wealth. But Nicholas was clearly cut from a different cloth even early on. He didn’t really need or want the inheritance. Instead, he decided to give it all away! I don’t know about you, but I don’t know very many people who would give away their entire inheritance.

Scripture tells us in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that “each one of you should give just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver.” Without a doubt, Nicholas of Myra was one of history’s most cheerful givers! Perhaps the most well-known story of Nicholas’ largesse is the story of the three poor sisters. In those days, a dowry was part of the marriage process. Upon learning about the need, Nicholas devised a plan to slip out under the cover of night and drop a bag of gold through a window and into the home of the girls. (Some tales have the bags of gold dropping into the girls’ stockings that had been hung to dry.) He did this on three separate occasions—one bag of gold for each of the girls. The third time, he was caught by the father, but Nicholas made the grateful man promise not to reveal his identity. His act of charity would remain a secret.

Eventually, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra. He loved and cared for the people with complete devotion, and soon his generosity and kindness became known far beyond the borders of Myra. When new sailors would come to town, they would learn the tales of Bishop Nicholas and then take them back to their own towns and families far away. Nicholas became quite famous. Too famous, perhaps, because when the Emperor Diocletian began his persecution of the Church, Nicholas was sought out, arrested and tortured for his faith in Christ. After more than five long years, Nicholas was finally released by a new Emperor named Constantine. As soon as he was released from prison, he went back to serving as bishop, and the stories of his life continued to grow and spread all over Europe. On December 6, 343, after becoming a very old, wise, loving man, Nicholas himself died. Today, paintings of Nicholas in a long red bishop’s robe and a full white beard can be seen all over the world.

While the similarities are striking, it still doesn't explain how Nicholas of Myra became Santa Claus. That's part two.

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