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This topic is adapted from the PursueGOD Video YouTube channel.

Some popular Christmas songs paint Santa Claus a bit like he’s God. After all, he knows if you’ve been bad or good. He gets to define what naughty and nice means, and who measures up. But if you dig beneath the layers of myth and history, a different picture emerges. The original Saint Nicholas was a real person. There is a spiritual depth to the story of St. Nicholas that will encourage you.

Nicholas of Myra

St. Nicholas was born around 270 AD, along the coast of what is now southern Turkey. His parents were wealthy. They were also Christians, who faithfully taught him the Bible. When Nicholas was a teenager, his parents died, leaving him a sizeable fortune. Despite the temptations of wealth, Nicholas devoted his life to pursuing God and serving others. As a young man he became pastor of the city of Myra.

Nicholas’s Generosity

Nicholas used his inherited wealth to meet the needs of the Christian flock in his city. He often secretly visited the homes of the most needy at night to deliver food, clothing, and money. Nicholas often intervened to save children from tragedy or crisis. The legends report that coins thrown through a window might land in stockings hung by the fire to dry. He would drop gifts down the fireplace when no windows were open. One destitute family could not afford to feed their daughters or marry them off. Nicholas secretly provided dowries for for all three girls to keep them from having to sell themselves into prostitution. The last time, however, the father caught him in the act. Word spread that pastor Nicholas was responsible for hundreds of good deeds over the years.

Surviving Persecution

In 303 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian orderded a brutal persecution of Christians. People suspected of being Christians were commanded to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. Nicholas, along with thousands of others, refused. After several years in prison, he was released and served as pastor to God’s people in Myra for thirty more years. Nicholas died on December 6, about 350 AD.

Rise of the Legend

December 6 became known and celebrated as St. Nicholas’ day. Over time, devotion to Nicholas spread to all parts of Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia, Greece, and many individual cities – as well as the patron saint of children, sailors, pawnbrokers, and more. His legend grew over time. With St. Nicholas’ Day being on December 6, his festival gradually merged with Christmas in many lands. Nicholas became transformed into a Santa Claus figure. In each country, the name was changed, and each of these Santa figures was blended with characters from local folklore.

The American version of Santa Claus owes a lot to the Dutch who settled in New York. They united St. Nicholas with a benevolent magician from Nordic legend, who was known for punishing naughty children and rewarding good ones. Based on Nicholas’ habit of secret giving, his well-known generosity – especially toward children – along with the Dutch custom of giving gifts on St. Nicholas’ day, this paved the way for many of the Christmas customs common in America today.

Today’s Santa still bears some resemblance to St. Nicholas. His clothes are an adaptation of the clothes worn by a third-century pastor. The traditional pastor’s robes were red, for the blood Christ shed on the cross for our sins. The red robes were trimmed in white, a symbol of purity and holiness – both of Christ and of his people. Santa’s hat and cape are reminiscent of an ancient pastor’s hat and cape. In his later years, the real Nicholas was said to have a long, white beard.

Nicholas’s Example

Of course, Christmas is not about St. Nicholas. But if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, there is much to celebrate and remember about this man. We can be inspired by his generosity and care for children in need. He was a humble and dedicated servant of Jesus his whole life long. He loved the Lord and even endured persecution and suffering for Christ.

If Nicholas were alive today, he would likely refuse all the attention he now gets. He never wanted to draw praise to himself. He would want to be known simply as Nicholas, servant of Jesus Christ.

[Related: The Evolution of Santa Claus]

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. What role does Santa Claus play in your family’s Christmas traditions?
  4. If you received a large inheritance, how would you spend it? How is that different from when you were 20?
  5. What impresses you most about the story of St. Nicholas, and why?
  6. How might this topic change how your family approaches Santa Claus? Explain.
  7. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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