Christmas is a curious season. Most of us enter it with memories and expectations built by past Christmases, but built also by all the stories, movies, TV shows and ads we’ve seen about Christmas over our lifetimes—a mashup of Grandma’s pie and the Grinch and Ho-ho-ho.
The truth is, the Christmas we are used to, the Christmas of jolly old St. Nicholas and chestnuts roasting on an open fire and gift exchanges mostly to close loved ones is the product of industrialization and advertising. It’s only about 150 years old although growing more elaborate every year (if you can afford it).
Of course the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birth is much older. Not as old as Easter, which Christians have celebrated since the Jesus’ resurrection, but dating back to at least the 300s as Christianity became more and more prominent in the Roman world.
Constantine became the Roman Emperor in 312 after having a vision that he would claim the empire under the sign of the cross. In 326 he built a church in Bethlehem and made the birth of Jesus a formal celebration. About 350 AD, Pope Julius set December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth. It was a convenient date because it corresponded with the Roman feast of Saturnalia, the festival of the Unconquered Sun, but Christmas did not become a major church festival until the 9th century.
Nikolas lived during this period of Constantine’s rule. The legend of St Nikolas can be traced back to a real person born about 280 A.D near Myra in modern-day Turkey, in the province of Lycia in the book of Acts (Acts 27:5). We have bones that are of the right age and which have a long history of being those of Nikolas himself. Scientists have done extensive testing on them and have even made a forensic reconstruction of his skull.
He was a Christian and became the Bishop of Myra. The National Geographic history of Nikolas tells us he was “neither fat nor jolly but developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in 303, when Bibles were burned and priests made to renounce Christianity or face execution.” In fact, he spent years in prison until Constantine ended the persecution of Christians.
Long before Christmas became an important day, Nikolas was beloved, known for the miracles he performed and for his kindness and generosity. He was said to have been born to a wealthy family but gave away his wealth to the needy and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the most famous stories about him is his rescue of three daughters of a destitute man; the daughters might have been sold into prostitution had Nikolas not dropped bags of gold coins through their windows as each reached the age of marriage. He tried to make the gift anonymous, but the third time he brought money the father caught him and told everyone about his kindness and generosity—and originated his status as a giver of gifts.
Over the course of many years, Nikolas’s popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children, among many other groups. But his transformation into Santa Claus was a result of groups of Dutch families who had preserved the tradition of the Saint during the austere years after the Reformation and brought it with them to the New World.
The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas. The resulting image of Santa Claus in the United States crystallized in the 19th century, and he has ever since remained the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas even as the holiday has become increasingly secular.
The idea of Christmas as a family holiday was popularized by Dickens in A Christmas Carol, followed by the publication of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The image from the poem was elaborated on by political cartoonist Thomas Nast in an 1863 illustration, but the final touch into our current plump and jolly old man came from a Coca-Cola Company illustrator in the 1930s.
In 1939, a Montgomery Ward advertising man created Rudolph to guide Santa’s sleigh and wrote a book and a song about him. When “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, Christmas as we know it was complete. But it’s come a long way from the tradition of gifts given to poor children on December 6 in imitation of St. Nikolas. Maybe it’s time for Christians to talk a little more during the Christmas season about the original saint and his way of honoring Jesus.