Do you know what Santa Claus did before he moved to the North Pole, hired all those elves, and started making toys to deliver to all the little children of the world on Christmas Eve? He was a minister. That’s true! Here’s the story.
Once upon a time, around about 280 A.D., on the other side of the world, there was a little boy named Nick. Nick’s father was a wealthy businessman, so Nick grew up having everything he needed and more. Nick’s father often had to travel for his business, and sometimes Nick would go along. As they rode their horses through the countryside and villages, there would often be beggars along the road, sitting there with their hands held high to the passing travelers. Nick’s father was a generous man and would always give each one a few coins.
Nick asked his father why he did that, because he could see there was nothing given in return. His father explained, “These people are lame or blind or old. They cannot work and have no money, and in this way we can help them. After all, our Lord taught us to share, and to give to others as He has given to us.”
When Nick grew up, he went away to school to be a pastor. When he completed his studies, he was called to serve a church in the city of Myra, in what is now the nation of Turkey. There he did all the things that pastors do: preaching, leading worship, teaching God’s Word, and visiting the sick and the dying. And one of the things he told the people was that our Lord has taught us to give to others as he has given to us.
Then Pastor Nicholas’s parents died and he, an only child, inherited all their great wealth. But Nicholas’s life did not change. He remained a pastor in Myra.
Some time after Nicholas received his inheritance, a family in his church came on hard times. The father was injured and was unable to work for many months. Soon they were out of food and hungry, and they were being forced to beg on the streets. Pastor Nicholas was saddened by this, so he went to the market and bought a large sack of food. Then, in the middle of the night, he went to this house, laid the sack on the front steps, knocked on the door loudly, and ran away.
Another time, Pastor Nicholas heard about a family with three daughters of marriageable age, but the father was poor, and could not come up with the dowry payment for any of them– and in those days, no dowry meant no marriage. One of the sisters decided she would sell herself as a slave (or something worse), and in that way, she could make enough money to provide for the other two. When Pastor Nicholas heard this news he was horrified, and he knew he could not allow such a thing to happen in his congregation. So late one night he filled three sacks with money, enough in each one for the dowry. He quietly approached the house and tossed the bags through an open window. Again, he dashed away, off into the night, and the family was overjoyed with the mysterious gift.
It truly is more blessed to give than to receive, so Pastor Nick really got into the spirit of this night-time gift giving. There were stories that he filled socks with tools that men and women needed for their work, and that he bought shoes for children and filled them with sweets; all left by the door to be found in the morning. There were more stories of money being thrown through open windows, or even down chimneys, though always in secret. Before long, these acts of kindness were being talked about throughout the city, and everyone wondered about the identity of this wonderful person.
One night the secret was discovered. Just as Nick was about to set a sack on someone’s step, the door opened. The man inside was astonished to see his pastor. Pastor Nick pleaded with him to not tell anyone, but the news was too good to keep quiet. By noon the next day everyone in town knew. People gathered at the pastor’s house, cheering and calling for him to come out. He came out and simply said: “Our Lord has taught us to give to others as he has given to us.”
Years went by and Pastor Nicholas became Bishop Nicholas. The secret gift giving continued, but now, no one could be sure anymore who was doing the giving. Other people in Myra had been inspired to do the same thing, giving gifts in secret to those in need.
Such generosity continued, even long after Bishop Nicholas died. Even then, when people did not know who to thank, they would often simply say, “Well, I suppose it was old St. Nick.” SAINT Nick, because by that time the Catholic Church had declared him as one of the saints of the church: St. Nicholas.
Merchants, sailors, and travelers to Myra from other parts of the world were amazed and curious about this generous gift giving among the people of the city. They were told the story of St. Nick, and then went back and told it in their own homes and villages. Thus, the stories spread to many lands, and in each place, new ideas and new traditions and new ways of saying the name developed. Saint Nick also became known as Mikulaas, Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, Old Man Christmas, Father Christmas, Sinterklass, and in America, Santa Claus.
But it all goes back to St. Nicholas, who before that, was Pastor Nicholas, a good man who gave gifts to those who were in need without expecting anything in return.
This story of St. Nicholas is a combination of fact and legend, and it is difficult to determine which is which. Many legends were built up around this man, and some of my story is no doubt legendary. But there certainly was a Nicholas in the first half of the fourth century, and he certainly must have done some wonderful things to give rise to the legends. I checked five sources as I prepared this story, and each source came to different conclusions about what parts of the story actually happened. I include more details than some accounts, and less than others. I cannot verify each detail and conversation, but the basic core of the story seems to be accepted by most as historically accurate. All agree that our Santa Claus traditions go back to the historical figure of St. Nicholas. The Church has designated December 6th as the day to commemorate ‘Nicholas, Bishop of Myra’– and that’s jolly old St. Nick himself!
St. Nicholas certainly is a good example of gratefully responding to all that God has given us. James 1:17 tells us that every good and perfect gift is from God. Acts 20:35 says, “The Lord Jesus himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” And at Christmas we celebrate God’s most perfect gift, as described in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
All that we have is from God. In grateful response we share with others. Our Christmas gift giving reflects something of this, but we have certainly lost something of it when we have to spend time and energy trying to think of what to give people who need nothing.
In the spirit of the original St. Nick, be generous this Christmas season. Give to one of the many charities that help those in need. One of my favorites is the Salvation Army. When you walk by those Salvation Army bell ringers with their red buckets, don’t put in twenty cents, put in twenty dollars. Most of you won’t miss it, and you can be sure they will put it to good use. It is a great organization whose mission is to give those in need, and to do so in the name of Jesus.
Whatever the form of your gift giving, follow the example of Nicholas, for whom such generosity was a way to remember, to honor, and to bear witness to the Lord Jesus.
Deuteronomy 16:17 — All shall give as they are able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.
Acts 20:35 — (Paul said), “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”
Ephesians 2:8-9 — “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not from yourselves, IT IS THE GIFT OF GOD.
O Lord Jesus Christ, who though you were rich became poor, grant that all our desire for and covetousness of earthly possessions may die in us, and that the desire for heavenly things may live and grow in us. Keep us from all vain expenses so that we may always have enough to give to those who are in need, and that we may not give grudgingly, but cheerfully. Amen.
—Treasury of Devotion, 1869
Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (270-343)
(notice the three bags he is holding, symbolic of the three bags of money for the three sisters’ dowry)