Nicholas of Myra (270-343 AD)
Much of the Christmas experience that we enjoy today has drifted away from the classic biblical story into a more generic ‘winter wonder’. The commercial world thrives on cashing in whilst the cynical modern world seems to enjoy debunking traditional Christmas myths and legends, However, the figure of ‘Father Christmas’ still holds a magical mystery, especially for younger children.
The modern appearance of Santa took time to evolve. From the early 19th century, he had usually been painted with red robes and in the 1870s, the artist Thomas Nast helped to form the way Santa was presented with holly on his head and surrounded with toys. However, the classic Santa look seems to have been crystalised in an advertising campaign by Coca-Cola in 1931. The company commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa and the jolly, red-faced, white-bearded figure soon became the accepted way to depict Father Christmas, even though he once was portrayed in many different ways all over the world.
A generous man
The name ‘Santa Claus’ is a derivation of the name ‘Saint Nicholas’ and describes the man who was the original enthusiast for the true meaning of Christmas: Nicholas of Myra. He was a very zealous Christian even as a boy and as a young man he became a church minister. His family was very wealthy but Nicholas was in no way corrupted by the love of money. He was amazingly generous in using his family resources to care for others. One famous example of this was how he secretly threw bags of money through the window of a poor man’s home in order to rescue his three daughters from slavery and to pay for them to get married. This was, perhaps, the origin of the idea that Santa Claus delivered gifts to those in need. There are many other stories like this about Nicholas, especially about him helping children in desperate need.
A devout man
Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, a maritime city in Asia Minor, and endured intense persecution as he tried to drive out paganism from the area. Myra was a port and is mentioned in Acts 27:5 when Paul boarded an Alexandrian ship headed for Italy. The sailors of Myra used to ask Nicholas to calm the seas because he was so full of the Spirit and seemed to be able to get miraculous answers to his prayers.
In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea was called to deal with the recent teaching that Jesus was not truly divine in the same way that the Father is divine. A man called Arius had begun to teach that God the Son had been created at the beginning of the universe and that before this he did not exist at all. When Nicholas heard Arius arguing for this at the council he was so upset that he went and punched Arius in the face! Though Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned for his actions, it gives us an insight into how passionate Nicholas was about the identity of Jesus. It is said that in prison the Lord Jesus visited Nicholas to encourage him with the words, ‘You are in prison for loving me.’
Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD, yet there are all kinds of stories throughout history about him still popping up from time to time to care for children and give gifts to those in need!
A passionate man
We can see from looking at Nicholas’ life that he had a real passion for the Lord Jesus and this flowed through into his actions. Christmas is all about the birth of the living God as a genuine human being. This is what caused the angels and the animals, the stars and the shepherds to gather around that new-born baby in adoring worship. This is why, in spite of all the materialism and mania, the celebration of Christmas still whispers something far more than presents and parties. That little baby in the manger is everything that God is, at full strength: undiluted deity in bodily form.
Nicholas was imprisoned for his overflowing zeal for this truth, and reminds us that when Jesus is overlooked or ignored at Christmas, we too ought to be upset and jealous for the honour of this living God. Surely the Christmas gift that Saint Nicholas would want to share with us all today is his passion for the Lord Jesus.