Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
1 Cor. 11:1
Should he be part of our Christmas celebrations?
Should he not?
Is the inclusion of the myth a form of deceit with our kids?
Or is it a harmless bit of fun, some local color on the holiday?
I don't know.
Theologian and standard-setter I am not.
But I do know in the flurry of red velvet coats and toy-laden sleighs, we lose the man to the myth.
His name was Nicholas of Bari and Myra and he was born in 270 A.D., a couple of centuries stone's throw from the time of Christ. His hometown was Patara, a Greek village at the time of his birth which would later become a part of Turkey along the southern coast. Raised in a household of prosperous financial means, at a young age, Nicholas would find himself with money in the bank, burying his devout Christian parents as a result of a devastating epidemic.
It is here that Nicholas's story begins to reveal the character of the man. He was flush with funds and absent in parental accountability, but rather than take his inheritance and pursue this world, he invested in the next. Nicholas chose to use the money to take care of the sick, the poor and the needy, giving himself completely to the ministry of the church.
As the machine of Roman military dominance churned its way through adjacent nations, the emperor Diocletian began a campaign to stamp out this upstart cult of Christianity throughout the regions he was conquering. Nicholas was swept up in a tide of persecution and imprisonment for his faith, beaten and jailed. He was finally released during the reign of Constantine. He attended the Council of Nicea, a seminal event in promoting unity of the church and protecting the divine nature of Christ from the swirling apostasies of the day.
Nicholas's faithful shepherding of the church at Myra as bishop earned him admiration and devotion. He was known for his generosity and care. He is said to have provided dowries for three girls whose father had lost his fortune, protecting them from being sold into prostitution. He was also credited with stepping between soldiers and three young men who were about to be executed, saving their lives by his courage. During his tenure as bishop, the citizens of Myra often experienced anonymous donations being made and children began leaving their shoes out on the stoop, often finding coins placed in their footwear come morning.
Nicholas's legacy of Christian generosity and unyielding faith made him a 'saint favorite' in the years following his death. Sailors and children claimed his as patron and the legends surrounding the miracles of his relics spread throughout Europe.
So how did Saint Nicholas morph into the Santa Claus of today?
We can thank the Dutch.
When the Dutch came to the New World during the 1600's, they settled what was originally called New Netherlands, with its hub being New Amsterdam. We know the region as New York City today. The Dutch had long celebrated the life of Sinterklaas, their variation on the name of Saint Nicholas. After the Revolution, New Yorkers began to once again celebrate the Dutch heritage of their region and Sinterklaas/Saint Nicholas was promoted as patron saint of the city in the early 1800's. The image of the saint from Turkey began to blend with the Dutch aesthetic of colder climes and reindeer. Washington Irving commemorated him in verse, along with Clement Clarke Moore, and by the time of the Civil War in the 1860's, political cartoonist Thomas Nast took the traditional image of the saint and melded it to the flavors of the Dutch influence.
And so was the jolly old elf birthed.
It's a whole franchise now, this Santa Claus/Sinterklaas/Saint Nick thing. It bears its own rituals and requirements, lists of naughty and nice, demands and stockings, candy and coal. There are flashing lights, radar reports on his progress through the night sky, reports of chimney spelunking and a GPS system called Rudolph.
It's a bit noisy, all those additions.
But when we get a little quiet, when we allow the blinking lights to fade back a notch, when we blink back the visage of red suits and black boots, a whisper of the man remains.
An echo of generosity. A beat of a heart that drummed solely for the Savior. Aromas of compassion and mercy, courage and sacrifice, the perfume of the saints.
And that is the legacy of a well-lived life.
May we lay down the trappings of this world's fame and embrace the essence of what is real. May we aspire to the simple path of a simple man known as Nicholas of Myra.
Simply living out the grace we have been extended through Christ.