With children in your family, extended family or friendship circles it can be challenging at times negotiating the stories of Jesus, the shepherds, the wise men and…Santa! Why on my Christmas cards isn’t Santa at the manger with the shepherds? Was he one of the wise men? Did Jesus and Santa ever meet? Etc. How do we filter faith, fact and fiction without becoming the Christmas story police?!
Of course, different families have different approaches. In our household, my kids love playing the game of “Santa.” The elder two are now old enough that they have also taken an interest in the true story of the first and (spoiler alert!) real Santa!
As you may know, the first Santa lived in modern day Turkey. His name was Nikolaus – Klaus to his friends – and he was born in Patara around 270AD. In later life he became the bishop of Myra in Turkey and was part of the famous international church council in Nicaea that agreed the first Creed which summarized the Christian church’s central beliefs about God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Klaus brought his contribution to the Christian story at a pivotal time.
While serving the churches in Myra, Klaus was arrested and imprisoned as part of a crackdown on the Christian faith by the emperor Diocletian. Klaus survived his imprisonment and returned to pastoral ministry once released, on the arrival of a new emperor who passed a bill to tolerate Christian faith and practice. The way in which Bishop Nikolaus handled his period in prison and maintained his pastoral ministry throughout, brought leadership to Christian believers in Turkey contending with violent and uncertain times.
However, although the image of Saint Nikolaus that we’re most familiar with is one of an adult – a bishop, a mature gentleman, complete with Eastern Orthodox beard and royal red ecclesiastical robes, the one thing Nikolaus of Myra is most famous for is a habit he formed long before he became a church leader; a habit he formed as a teenager.
Klaus was orphaned at a young age and benefited from a substantial inheritance. He moved to the city of Myra to live with his Uncle who helped the young Klaus rebuild his life and his faith after his tragic bereavement. The impact of his Uncle’s care and hospitality made the love of Jesus real for Klaus, and he soon felt moved to pay the favour forward. It didn’t take Klaus long to find the opportunity.
Klaus quickly become aware of people in his new city who were doing it tough; families in debt, people struggling with sickness, children who had lost parents, children going hungry. Klaus made it his personal mission to contribute to their needs, quietly and anonymously. His secret giving saved many children and families from hunger, poverty and slavery. It was only much later in life, as a church leader, as others caught the habit from him, that the custom of secret gift-giving became publicly associated with the name and person of Bishop Nikolaus – AKA “Saint Nick” or “Santa Claus”!
Saint Nikolaus’ story is a nice reminder that alongside the giving we all enjoy at Christmas – giving to one another, giving as expressions of love, affirmation, appreciation and thankfulness – there is another kind of giving to which Jesus directs us in the Gospels. Giving to those who cannot return the favour. Giving secretly. Giving without fanfare. That’s the kind of giving that moved Klaus. And it’s why the very first Santa was a “secret Santa.”
If the children in your world are old enough not to be confused by the connection, it might be inspiring for them to know that a long time ago, a teenage boy, because he was inspired by Jesus, began expressing kindness and generosity in his own neighborhood in a way that has impacted the world – introducing a custom that is celebrated and renewed every year from East to West!
So when we give anonymously to others, to the poor and needy, we are doing something rooted in the Gospel teaching of Jesus – and deeply associated with the very first Santa! What a great custom to include in your celebration of Christmas! What a great story to be part of!