Devotion to St. Nicholas — Santa Claus
St. Nicholas is depicted in a stained-glass window at Blessed Sacrament Church in Bolton Landing, N.Y.
GREGORY A. SHEMITZ/cns
Our gift-giving Santa Claus steps out of the legendary gift-giving Bishop Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century bishop from a region of modern-day Turkey. It was a matter of justice rather than generosity that prompted him to give the gift that started our tradition of gift-giving.
According to legend he anonymously provided three bags of gold to three sisters who were reduced to prostitution because their poor father was unable to provide their dowries. The gifts he tossed in the window landed in the girls' stockings hung by the mantle. Some erroneous Protestant zealots replaced him with a secular gift-giving counterpart: Father Christmas in the English version, and Pere Noel in the French. But the saintly bishop has prevailed.
While gift-giving and his name — Saint Nikolaas, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus — remain popular, his image has changed.
Two people are responsible for this change: Clement Moore and Thomas Nast. In 1822 Moore published "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also known as "The Night before Christmas." Henceforth Bishop Nicholas takes on a toy bag, reindeer and sleigh, and a dramatic chimney entrance. The pen of Nast fleshed out the remainder of Santa Claus' appearance. A different picture of Saint Nicholas had emerged.
But devotion to Saint Nicholas continues and his feast is still celebrated on Dec. 6 with Saint Nicholas' breakfast. In honor of this Byzantine bishop's sense of justice and generosity, food and clothing are collected for people in need.
(Marianist Brother John Samaha is a retired religious educator who worked for many years in the catechetical department of the Oakland diocese. He now resides in Cupertino.)
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