The saint behind Santa Claus

When my oldest son was 4, he and two of his little buddies were sitting in a row of carseats talking about Santa Claus.

“I can’t wait for Santa Claus to come,” said the first boy, sitting in the middle.

“There’s no such thing as Santa Claus,” said the second boy, to the first boy’s befuddlement.

“Yes, there is a Santa Claus,” said my son, “but he’s dead.”

The boy in the middle was horrified.

The name Santa Claus, of course, is just a variation on the name Saint Nicholas. And for their whole lives, my kids have celebrated St. Nicholas Day. Along with telling the story of St. Nick, we’ve recast all of those guys dressed up in red suits around town as St. Nicholas’ helpers. (Frankly, I don’t know how parents who perpetuate the typical Santa Claus myth get away with it when there are so many obvious imposters out there.) Not only does our approach deal with Santas in front of every grocery store, tiredly ringing bells for the Salvation Army, but it leaves room for the rest of us to be St. Nicholas’ helpers as well.

There are lots of stories about St. Nicholas, which include a story about him having a particularly powerful right hook and an odd story about a barrel of pickles, but the most basic stories all stem from his generous faith.

St. Nick was a bishop, which is why he wears the red suit — a modification of his cardinal worship attire. In one story, a close merchant friend suffered a financial collapse when his ships were lost at sea. So, in order to ensure the friend’s daughters had dowries, Nicholas quietly tossed a bag of gold coins into their window at night. The coins landed in the daughters’ shoes, which were drying in front of the fire. Interestingly, many of us copy him without realizing it. Over the years, the details have changed a little. Shoes have been replaced by stockings hung from the mantle and the gold coins have been replaced by chocolate gold coins (which are usually made of the worst chocolate I’ve ever tasted).

As the story continues, Nicholas’ friend was industrious and didn’t need much help soon after. So, Nicholas turned his generosity elsewhere. He secretly hired people to make wooden toys and spicy breads to be delivered anonymously to the poor of his city. We’ve modified this as well. Now, we’ve got Santa’s elves, way too many toys, and gingerbread cookies and other savory breads to over-indulge on. But the important things here is we got our tradition of giving generously to the poor among us during this season.

We take this last part seriously. We may not be elves or wear red suits, but we get to be St. Nicholas’ helpers anyhow. So, each year on St. Nicholas Day (or a weekend day close by), we do an act of service together as a family. That has included things from raking mounds of leaves for elderly people to buying and delivering a tree to a family that couldn’t afford one. This year, we will make breakfast for the residents at Bethlehem Inn, a ministry that provides transitional housing. The important thing is to get out there and serve.

So, yes, my son was correct. Santa Claus is dead. But that’s OK. Instead of there being just one of him, stuck in one time and place, all of us have the opportunity of being his helpers.

Oh, and one last thing. When I was a kid, we did both stockings and presents under the tree on Christmas morning and it was a bit much. So, with our kids, my wife and I moved stockings to St. Nicholas Day. This combines our giving and receiving — we don’t just give and we don’t just receive, we do both — on the same day, and it reduces the number of gifts opened on Christmas morning, which is a huge relief.

And if you want to start celebrating the saint’s day yourself, it’s on December 6.