Wednesday, December 5, 2012

St. Nicholas: An Alternative to the Santa Dilemma?

Santa Claus
Photo Credit: Richard Pilon
I have had several people asking me lately how we do "the whole Santa thing" at our house. I must admit that I have been reluctant to really pinpoint my feelings on this matter because I have fond memories of the jolly old man. 
Then there's always the question: "How do you tie Santa Claus in with baby Jesus?" It's really hard to reconcile the two at Christmas time.

Santa brings presents.
Jesus brings peace, hope, & love.

Santa is here for only one month out of the year.
Jesus exists for all times, in every season, on every day.

Santa "sees" if we're being naughty or nice.
Jesus looks beyond our actions & into our hearts.

Santa rewards the good with presents.
Jesus rewards the faithful with salvation.  

Of the two, which would you rather teach your children about? The obvious answer is Jesus.

But there is a way to reconcile the two extremes at Christmas time, and that is through a man known to many as...

Saint Nicholas

I will note that I am not Catholic, nor do I participate in saints' day observances. However, from my research I have found that St. Nicholas was a Godly man who deserves our consideration, not because he was any better than you or I, but because he is the source of today's Santa Claus. 

St Nicholas of Myra, Ozleworth
St. Nicholas of Myra {nicksarebi}


Who was Saint Nicholas?

Nicholas was born in Turkey during the 3rd century to wealthy Christian parents. After his parents died in a plague, he was left a considerable inheritance. In his devotion to Christ, Nicholas practiced what Jesus said about selling your possessions and giving them to the poor. As a result, he became known far and wide for his generosity and kindness to the poor, especially children.

Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra at a young age and faced imprisonment, persecution, exile, and torture for his faith at the hands of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Still, he persevered and held fast to his faith.

Nicholas died on December 6, AD 343. Today, many people celebrate "St. Nicholas Day" on the anniversary of his death in celebration of Nicholas's life of faith and devotion to God.

Nicholas became a saint many years before the Roman Catholic Church canonized him. However, we know that by 200 years after his death, he was already recognized as a saint throughout the world.
Many legends surround St. Nicholas but all attest to his love of children, his compassion and charity for the needy, and his selfless devotion to Christ.

St. Nicholas
Photo Credit: Dierken


What's the Connection Between St. Nicholas & Santa Claus

**So, what does a 3rd century holy man have to do with the jolly old man in the red suit?
Many theories are known to exist, but here's what I have gathered from my research.

The first European settlers brought St. Nicholas to the New World. Christopher Columbus even named a Haitian port for him on his first voyage. The New York Dutch brought St. Nicholas to New Amsterdam (a colonial Dutch town on Manhattan, later renamed New York).

In 1809, Washington Irving wrote Knickerbocker's History of New York in which were numerous references to St. Nicholas described as a jolly elfin Dutch man with a clay pipe.

The 19th century was a time of cultural change, especially for children who were beginning to be viewed as innocents in need of protection, education, and training.
The image of St. Nicholas also began to change. In 1823, the anonymous poem The Children's Friend was published, describing "Sante Claus" as coming from the North in a sleigh with flying reindeer. Imagery and depictions of St. Nicholas shifted from saintly bishop to giver of gifts to good boys and girls.

Then, in 1823, the image of the jolly old elf received further support in Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," now better known as "The Night Before Christmas." In this classic piece, St. Nicholas looks a lot like Washington Irving's version: a jolly elf-like man with a round belly smoking a pipe. Moore's poem has had the greatest influence on the Americanization of Santa Claus.

"Along with appearance changes, the saint's name shifted to Santa Claus—a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus" (St. Nicholas Center).

Santa Claus
Photo Credit: MoonSoleil
In the 20th century, companies like Coca-Cola began using Santa Claus to advertise their products. By this time, Santa had become life-size with a flowing white beard and wearing his classic red suit, a far cry from the saintly Nicholas of the 3rd century.

Today, Santa Claus has become so commercialized that St. Nicholas, upon whom Santa originated, is no longer clearly evident.

This saint, known for giving generously and anonymously and for his faithful devotion to God in the face of intense persecution, has long been forgotten.
Santa Claus is comin' to the Amelia Earhart Center
Photo Credit: USACE Europe District

So Can We Celebrate Christmas with Santa and Jesus?

I think every family has to come to that conclusion on its own. Whether Santa is a part of your Christmas is up to you. For me, one way to reconcile Santa Claus with Jesus Christ is to teach my children about the real St. Nicholas. I say this not to equate St. Nicholas with Jesus because we all know Jesus Christ alone is our hope of salvation.

But, if we want to celebrate Christmas with Santa, the key for me is Nicholas, the good man who practiced what Jesus preached about giving all he had to the poor.

That being said, these are the things I desire for my children at Christmas time:

  • Joy in knowing that Jesus is God who came as a baby
  • Hope in knowing that His birth brings us life
  • Peace in knowing that Jesus' death and resurrection mean our salvation
I also want my children to participate in the Santa Claus experience. Not in the modern sense with the emphasis on gluttonous gifts and extravagant spending but true to the character of the original Santa Claus--St. Nicholas. 

My hope is that Christmas will be a time of giving, serving, and loving. 

Some Ways to Share St. Nicholas with Children

For those who want to educate their children about St. Nicholas or simply teach them the value of giving over receiving, here are some suggestions:


1. Watch the Veggie Tales movie St. Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving {great for younger children} and/or What's in the Bible? Buck Denver Asks...Why Do We Call it Christmas {excellent, but for older kids}.
2. Read books about St. Nicholas. I found these two at our local library that are great, but there are also others: 

3. Take a spin on the classic Santa letter by having your child write what she would like to give to others.

4. Have a sibling gift exchange. Let each child buy or make a small gift for his sibling. The focus should be on really thinking about the sibling's interests.

5. Emphasize giving over receiving by seeking out opportunities to give this Christmas. Some examples include the Angel Tree, Toys for Tots (Some Walgreen's have a toy drop off from now until December 15), area food banks, local charities, and people in need in your area.

6.  Make St. Nicholas cookies also known as "Speculaas" to deliver anonymously to a friend. I'm planning to make Kitchen Stewardship's recipe tomorrow in celebration of St. Nicholas's feast day. 

I'll be the first to admit that I do not have the answer to the Santa dilemma. Whether you decide to do Santa or not is a personal choice. 

But if you're looking for a way to bridge the gap between all or nothing and want to emphasize giving over receiving to your children, then I recommend at least taking a look at St. Nicholas. 

He isn't Santa as we know him today, but at least, unlike Santa Claus, his life does point us to Jesus Christ. 

For more information about St. Nicholas, I recommend St. Nicholas Center.
What are your thoughts about the Santa dilemma? Is it a dilemma for you?

I would love to hear from you in the comments below. 

Praying God's richest blessings on you as you grow in His glory, 

Linking up with: The Better MomMonday Mom MusingsRaising ArrowsTime-Warp Wife, Artful Tuesday, Teach Me Tuesdays, Top 10 Tuesday, Titus 2 Tuesdays, Leaving a Legacy, Women Living Well WednesdaysRaising HomemakersRaising Mighty Arrows 


  1. You know my thoughts, Keri! :) Great post, and I appreciate all your time and effort with the research.

    1. Thanks, Meghan. Blessings to you and Merry Christmas!

  2. This is a very helpful post. Thanks! I'd never really taken much time to research St. Nicholas but planned on teaching about the historical figure to the kids.

    We've decided to not do Santa Clause in our home. We're not strict about decorations or movies or anything, because we treat Santa the same as Lightening McQueen. :) But the commercialized figure is so prevalent (they're even having one at the church Christmas party, which I have mixed feelings about) that I think it's important to do this historical education regardless of what our family decides to do.

    I especially like your suggestions at the end. I'd never heard of those cookies!

    1. Thanks, Tauna. I have really been grappling with this issue myself. I don't want to over-think it but I also don't want to lie to my kids. I do want my children to have an eternal perspective, so if I can do that through teaching them about St. Nicholas as a man who gave gifts to those in need just like Jesus gave us the greatest gift of all, then perhaps our emphasis will lie on what's truly important (serving, giving, love) and not what society says is important (receiving lots of stuff).