In part 1, we learned about the historical inspiration for Santa Claus, Nicholas of Myra, who died on December 6, 343. Nicholas’ habit of cheerful giving, and his commitment to both children and the poor, allowed him to become quite the celebrity.
After Nicholas’ death, the stories about him became bigger and more fantastic with each retelling. To thousands of people, especially sailors visiting the popular seaport town of Patara, Nicholas became a sort of superhero! True stories were mixed with fairy tales, and soon Bishop Nicholas became known as Saint Nicholas. His stories were told in faraway places like Germany, Spain, and even Holland, where Saint Nicholas was written as Sinterklaas (pronounced seen-tur-klos).
From Sweden to Greece, Christians everywhere loved Saint Nicholas. He became one of the most popular saints in the world, second only to Mary herself! And as the stories spread, a peculiar thing happened: more and more of those stories became about Nicholas rescuing and helping children. In fact, another famous tale about Nicholas involved him rescuing (and resurrecting) two boys out of pickle barrels!
Before long, people began celebrating December 6 as St. Nicholas Day. And children everywhere believed that—if they were good—on St. Nicholas’ Eve, he would come and fill their stockings with goodies, just like he did those three girls so long ago in Myra. The fact that the church in Spain began a practice of sending a bishop to Holland each year in order to distribute gifts to children and the needy only reinforced the tales. After all, to Dutch children, Spanish bishops decked out in their bishop’s red finery seemed to square perfectly with the tales of Sinterklaas.
Let’s fast-forward to the 1600s. The Dutch people had migrated from the Netherlands to the New World (America) and they brought their fantastical tales of Sinterklaas with them. The Puritans weren’t crazy about stories of Dutch saints bringing gifts to children, but by the 1800s, the new world had changed. New York, as the settlement was now called, wanted to learn about its history. So a man named Washington Irving made up a story about how a magical Dutch bishop named Saint Nicholas founded the city in his flying wagon! A few years later, theologian Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem about St. Nicholas based loosely on Irving’s history. One important change Moore made was that Saint Nicholas arrived on the night before Christmas instead of on December 5th. Moore’s poem spread like wildfire and soon, Americans everywhere were telling the story of Sinterklaas, which they pronounced "Santa Claus."
Over the years, cartoonist Thomas Nast drew many pictures of jolly old St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, as they were now calling him. And since Americans then were as fascinated by the North Pole as we are now about other planets, Nast decided to make the mysterious North Pole Santa’s secret home. But it wasn’t until 1931 when artist Haddon Sundblom was commissioned by Coca Cola to create a picture of Santa that our tall, Bishop Nicholas started to look like the Santa Claus we now know and love. Oh, and one more thing is missing from our story: Rudolph! Robert May, an advertising editor for Montgomery Ward (kind of like Sears or JC Penneys) wrote the story of Rudolph. (If you aren't familiar with May's story is it well worth reading!) Now Santa’s story is complete.
It took hundreds of years and many exciting stories, tales, poems, and pictures for little Nicholas of Myra to grow up and become known as Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas was an actual person who loved God more than anything. Because of his love for Christ, Nicholas turned secret and cheerful giving into a personal habit. Doing good for others and giving gifts to those in need became his modus operandi. In fact, for hundreds of years, we’ve not only loved the stories of St. Nick, but each year at Christmastime we (perhaps unknowingly) endeavor to be like him by giving gifts in secret. Some people even go so far as to dress just like him! Every time we see jolly old Santa Claus, it should remind us of the world’s most famous cheerful and secret giver: Saint Nicholas. And when people ask us if we believe in Santa, we can tell them, “Yes, we do! We believe in jolly old Saint Nicholas, the loyal servant of Jesus who gave away all he had in order to bless others.”
“But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3–4).