Just How Real is Santa Claus?


Author Adam C. English explores the true story behind the myth of the modern-day Santa.

The figure of Santa Claus has grown through history to represent the spirit of Christmas in the western world. But who was he really? Adam C. English, the author of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of St. Nicholas of Myra, spent 4 years researching the origins of this larger than life character.

What is known is that Saint Nicholas was born sometime after 260 C.E. and died sometime after 333 C.E. He was the bishop of the church in Myra in the Roman province of Lycia, Asia Minor. He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. and he was originally the patron saint of sailors. His story may have ended there except for a story that circulated about him shortly after his death.

Supposedly, Nicholas overheard the troubles of a formerly wealthy man now fallen into poverty. The man could not afford to marry off his three daughters because he lacked a dowry for them, and he feared they would be forced into prostitution. Instead, Nicholas visited the man twice in the night, each time anonymously tossing a bag of gold into the house to serve as dowry for one of the daughters. On his third visit, Nicholas was caught by the man, and accepted his gratitude but made him swear not to reveal who had helped him, because he did not want praise or recognition for his generosity.

This is an unusual story in the annals of Catholic sainthood. Following is an excerpt from Mr. English’s post on the Belief blog at CNN, My Take: The Christmas message of the real St. Nicholas that puts the tale in context. (The more extended version of the story can also be found at the link.)

More impressive than its connection with modern-day Santa Claus traditions is the tale’s historical uniqueness. The vast majority of saint stories that circulated in the early church involved extraordinary miracles and healings or dramatic martyrdoms and confessions of Christ.

But the Nicholas story was about a regular family facing a familiar crisis to which ordinary people could relate. Those in the pews had never heard anything like it.

Indeed, Nicholas would become the most popular nonbiblical saint in the pre-modern church. More churches would be dedicated to him than to any other person except Mary, the mother of Jesus. The first medieval drama that was not intended as a worship ritual and that was written in the vernacular was about Nicholas.

So there is a lot more to the story of St. Nick than meets the eye. His bold initiative to help three poor girls in need sparked a tradition of gift-giving that has carried into modern times. The magical Christmas Eve visits from Santa Claus represent the vestige of this old story. Instead of fixating on the commercialization and greed that plague the modern Santa Claus, I chose to see in it the lasting power of a simple act of kindness.

More than a footnote to the legend of Santa Claus, Nicholas is a model of Christian kindness, an inspiration for charity and a saint to be remembered. He challenges us at this time of year to give not only to those we know and love, but also to those we do not know and especially to those who find themselves in need.

So the next time a child asks if he is real, or an adult insists that he is a myth or simply a marketing ploy, you can tell them the true story of the real Santa Claus.

Photo: Grzegorz Łobiński/Flickr

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