Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop. He lived in Myra, in what would become modern-day Turkey.
Here’s what the Dec. 5, 2019 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac had to say about him:
“At the beginning of the Advent season is St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6 or Dec. 19 on the Julian calendar).
“St. Nicholas was a bishop who was known for his good deeds, especially for the needy and children. He often gave generously and anonymously... Nicholas was officially recognized as a saint in the 800s and in the 1200s Catholics in France began celebrating Bishop Nicholas Day on Dec. 6.
“Many countries in Europe celebrate the Feast of Sinterklaas — also known as Saint Nicholas — starting on the fifth of December, the eve of the day, by sharing candies, chocolate letters, small gifts, and riddles. Children put out their shoes with carrots and hay for the saint’s horse the evening prior, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. (Sound familiar?)”
In the United States, long ago, the pronunciation of Sinterklaas was altered to Santa Claus. His physical appearance changed as well: from a tall, slender, bearded saint, into a jolly jumbo-sized elf.
How did this transformation come about? In part, because of an anonymous poem entitled “A Visit.” It was first published in 1823. The opening line was penned, “The Night Before Christmas.” Its authorship is up for debate. However, in my mind, this was likely by the hand of Clement Clarke Moore, who reportedly wrote it for his children. Moore was a highly religious man, and a Professor at General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in New York City.
Some suggest that a friend of Moore obtained a copy and saw to it that it was produced for public consumption. Years later, Moore came forward claiming to be the author in the year 1837.
Here’s a small portion of the poem where he describes Saint Nick: “He had a broad face and a little round belly/That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”
Another chief contributor was illustrator-cartoonist Thomas Nast. In Harper’s Weekly, Christmas of 1862, Nast drew the first of what would be many images of Santa Claus, whose image gradually evolved over the span of nearly 20 years.
For me, the jolly bearded man in the red suit represents the original Saint Nicholas who was known for his generous heart and benevolent actions. As such, this provides opportunities to teach about these worthy attributes, the motivation behind them, based upon the teachings of Jesus Christ.
If people ask if I believe in Santa Claus, I respond, “yes,” but it may not be the Santa they had in mind.
In like manner, I do not reject the Christmas manger scene, even though it has changed in ways that give me some distress. The image we have now is not like the original event itself. It has evolved. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were Middle Eastern, dark-skinned Jews – and not from my Scandinavian heritage and with my modern Western world ways of thinking.
Also, the manger was not picturesque and sanitized but gave sight to the lack of suitable shelter for the traveler and the pungent smells of “real life.” I need to remember these things when I look upon the modern interpretation.
If people ask if I believe in Jesus, I respond, “yes,” but it may not be the Jesus they had in mind.
Walter is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church and has served as parish pastor for more than 30 years.