Who Was The Real Santa Claus?

Karl Roger (German, b.1879), "Father Chri...
Karl Roger (German, b.1879), “Father Christmas” (Photo credit: sofi01)

A few weeks ago my husband handed me this little book opened to a page just over three quarters of the way through  & suggested I read it.

men-of faithThe book is called ‘Stories Behind Men of Faith’ by Ace Collins {he also has one called ‘Stories behind women of Extraordinary Faith’}; the chapter the book was opened to was called ‘Nicholas of Myra – giving his life …’

The roots of Santa Claus are not found in the snows of the North Pole but were planted by third-century acts of charity in a region we now know as Turkey.  Ancient Christian writings indicate that the real person on whom the famous Christmas elf was based was a wisp of a man, slightly built, and probably little more that five feet tall.

As cardinal in the church, Nicholas of Myra, like Santa, would have been seen in flowing red robes, and early Christian art does reveal that late in his life Nicholas might well have had a white beard and balding head. Yet what made this church pioneer a model for the Christmas icon of goodwill was not his physical appearance but rather what was so freely displayed in his heart. It was Nicholas’s giving spirit, great compassion, and unending generosity that inspired a holiday legend now know by billions around the globe.

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from t...
A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from the Boyana Church, near Sofia, Bulgaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nicholas grew up in the Greek city of Myra  (270 A.D to 343 A.D)  the son of a wealthy businessman.  Myra was a busy Mediterranean Sea port that linked Egypt, Greece & Rome; it was a bustling city &  financial centre with a rich culture of art, drama & music. On the surface it appeared to be an ideal place to live,  however, like all affluent  metropolises, there was a dark side of crime & debauchery.  Being under Roman rule, the population fully embraced Roman culture were vices such as gambling, prostitution & smuggling were openly indulged.

The christmas bauble
Photo credit: thegirlrg

The Christian church was still very much in it’s infancy at this time, it’s influence paling in comparison  to the power of the Roman god’s & many members of the new faith, still embraced Roman culture.  Some however, like young Nicholas’ parents, Theophanes & Nonna, embraced the new faith more completely, not just in words but also in actions.  They actively supported missionary work & helped local works such as feeding the poor.  They regularly attended church services & Nicholas was enrolled in Christian theology & history classes.  The early Christian church asked it’s followers to embrace two primary principle; love God with all your heart, & love your neighbor as yourself.  It was a simple message & one the Nicholas took to heart, demonstrating it in his youth by sharing his allowance with the poor children in his neighbourhood who didn’t have anything to eat.

This generosity of heart would be more profoundly demonstrated when a family friend’s business failed.  The failure of this business, saw their friends forced from their home & into the slums.  Unable to afford food to feed his three daughters, the friend resigned himself to selling his eldest daughter to a brothel to help support the youngest two.  But the night before the eldest daughter was to be sold, Nicholas through a bag of gold through an open window & then vanished into the night before the girls father could see who their benefactor was.   Where the teenage Nicholas got the gold from is not clear, but it is assumed it was provided by his parents.  This act of generosity was to be repeated a year later when the money  had ran out & the father again considered selling his eldest daughter, & again a year after that.  On the third

christmas tree ornament
Photo credit: zaimoku_woodpile

visit however, Nicholas was caught by the father, who was eager to discover who his benefactor was.  Move to tears on discovering it was the son on his friend, he asked Nicholas why he had given them these generous gifts, the answer was simple … “Because you needed them.”  Another question that had been on the man’s mind was why the gifts had been made anonymously.  Nicholas’s answer to this question would form the foundation of the Santa Claus tradition, “Because it’s good to give and only God know about it.”

In his mid-teen’s, Nicholas became an orphan.  His uncle, a priest whom he had been named after, became his guardian.  With the help of his uncle, Nicholas sought  a way to honor his parents, his God, & the lessons they had taught him.   Nicholas first chose to do this by giving his considerable inheritance away to the poorest families in the region.  Then,  again with the help of his uncle, he committed himself to studying God’s word; first with private lesson from his uncles & later by attending the monastery Holy Sion after which he committed himself to full-time Christian service.

St Nicholas with scenes from and his life
St Nicholas with scenes from and his life (Photo credit: jimforest)

The first ten years of Nicholas ministry was served during a time of great Christian persecution under the Roman rulers Diocletian & Maximian.  Nicholas spent many years in jail as a religious leader, but rather than complain about his confinement, he saw it as an opportunity to witness to the prison guards & his fellow prisoners, & like the apostle Paul, he continued to encourage the local Christian population from behind bars.   After his release, Nicholas spent the next several years helping to rebuild his home town by feeding the poor, finding shelter for the homeless & families for the orphans.

Photo credit: _gee_

Because of his generosity, compassion & zeal for his faith, Nicholas was greatly loved by the people & as a result he was very influential with the Roman government.  He was able to use this influence to help the poor buy instigating things such as the lowering of taxes on the poor & government sponsored charity.   Nicholas had a profound effect on almost every sector of the community from the poorest peasant to the highest government official.  In 333 A.D the region was struck with famine after their crops failed bring with it death & suffering.  Being not only a great man of action, Nicholas was also a great man of faith.  He knew that a fleet of ship, bound for Egypt, had just arrived filled with grain.  He approach the captain of the convoy & ask if he would give them just 10 percent of the grain to help the starving people of Myra. The captain refused explaining that if he did not deliver the full cargo he & his men would be punished.  However Nicholas was not put off so easily.  After sharing the story of how Jesus had fed a multitude with just five loaves of bread & two fish,  he prayed with the captain & his men & promised  that God would protect him & his men & ensure the full cargo would be present when he arrived in Egypt.   Taking a leap of faith the captain agreed & give them more than 10 percent of his cargo.  When the grain was unloaded & weighed in Alexandria, as Nicholas promise, it weight the same as it had when first loaded – nothing missing; & the grain lasted for the two years of the famine, running out just after the first crops were harvested.  Nicholas would later become the patron saint of fishermen.

Even though he had given away his parents wealth after their death,  as Bishop of Myra Nicholas found the church coffers filled with Roman coin, but unlike some of his peers who succumb to the temptations this brought, Nicholas continued to give everything that came in to the poorest families in his community.

christmas tree ornament
Photo credit: zaimoku_woodpile

He would often leave a coin on the windows of the poor or in the shoes that had been left on porches.  He was also know to travel to small villages unannounced & distribute food, clothing & money to those in greatest need & then disappear before the bewildered & shocked villages could thank him.  Most never new who this generous stranger, dressed in red was & thus the legend of Nicholas of Myra grew.  

… his acts of service were so great that when he died, others picked up where he left off.  In fact, within a few years children all over Myra found gifts left in their shoes on Nicholas’s birthday. …

… Saint Nicholas didn’t become Santa Claus by chance.  Those who first provided the holidays with a magical elf dressed in red did so as a tribute to the giving spirit of this extraordinary man. 



One year, in my late teens, I was spending Christmas with my dad & his family.  The TV stations were playing all the classic Christmas movies; one of these was a stop-animation that I had never seen before  (or since  😦   )called the little drummer boy.   For those who have not heard the story it’s a about a poor little shepherd boy who hears of the birth of a new King & is invited by to join a caravan of people traveling to see this new King.  When they arrive at the stable where the newborn King & is parents are, he watches patiently while the others go forward to great the new King & present him with expensive gifts.  Eventually  it is the boys turn, nervously he approaches with nothing but his little drum & explains apologetically that he has nothing to offer the King but to play his drum.

I don’t remember the words to this song & I can only recall bits of the tune, but there was something about this story of a small boy with nothing but his drum to offer the King of Kings that created a lasting memory. It’s a reminder that a gift doesn’t have have to be fancy or have a big price tag to be of great value.  Sometimes the simplest gift, the gift of love is the most precious gift of all.


Merry Christmas     🙂



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