December 6th is the Feast of Saint Nicholas. We are pretty certain that he existed, and he was quite possibly a bishop in the early church, in what is now Turkey. Beyond that, though, well, there are many wonderful stories. All of the stories are about a faithful disciple of Christ, who lives the love of Jesus. Coca-Cola Santa Claus? Maybe not… Consider what The Encyclopædia Britannica has to say:
“Saint Nicholas, also called Nicholas of Myra (flourished 4th century, Myra, Lycia, Asia Minor [near modern Kale (Demre), Turkey]; feast day December 6), one of the most popular minor saints commemorated in the Eastern and Western churches and now traditionally associated with the festival of Christmas. In [Holland, Germany, and Switzerland especially] children receive gifts on December 6, Saint Nicholas Day.
“Nicholas’s existence is not attested by any historical document, so nothing certain is known of his life except that he was probably bishop of Myra in the 4th century. According to tradition, he was born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara, and, when young, traveled to Palestine and Egypt. He became bishop of Myra soon after returning to Lycia. He was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian but was released under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great and [legend says] attended the first Council (325) of Nicaea. He was buried in his church at Myra, and by the 6th century his shrine there had become well-known.
“Nicholas’s reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. He was reputed to have given marriage dowries of gold to three girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into lives of prostitution [. His legend says that he gave the gold secretly, by throwing bags of coins through the house window, or, another version, dropped the bags down the chimney. Legend also says that he] restored to life three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a tub of brine. In the Middle Ages, devotion to Nicholas extended to all parts of Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece; of charitable fraternities and guilds; of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers; and of such cities as Fribourg, in Switzerland, and Moscow.
“After the Reformation, devotion to Nicholas disappeared in [most] Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country’s English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. 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.”
So one who began his life after death as a devout Christian, wearing a Bishop’s tall red mitre, and giving secretly to the poor, evolved much later into a patron, note, not patron saint, but patron, of ‘the gift-giving festival’ of Christmas. Christmas is indeed a gift-giving festival, but it is God who is the gift-giver in Christ, whose Good News makes it clear that God does not keep score as we are tempted to do. Christmas is about God’s generosity which we are called to share, especially with the poor and all those in any need, all year round. Whose birthday is it anyway? For now our Advent journey continues. Thanks be to God!