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Happy St. Nicholas Day!

December 6th. St. Nicholas Day. The day that people all over the world are remembering the death and celebrating the life of Saint Nicholas.

Getting to the root of questions like “Who is Santa” and “Was he a real person” lead us back in time to the village of Patara, on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey. Nicholas was born around 270 AD to wealthy, yet devoutly Christian parents who taught him to revere and obey the teachings of Jesus. While still young, Nicholas lost his parents to an epidemic and received his inheritance -- an inheritance that he spent living out Jesus’s command to “sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19.21).

Nicholas was appointed Bishop of Myra (also located in modern-day Turkey), and his reputation for being generous spread. He became known for his concern and generosity toward the needy, and also for his love of children. Then under Diocletian, one of the most ruthless of the Roman emperors, Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned for his faith. However, after his release he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, where he vehemently argued for the doctrine of the Trinity -- so vehemently that he slapped (some people say punched) Arius for denying the divinity of the Son! Almost twenty years later in 343 AD, Bishop Nicholas died. Now the day of his death, December 6th, is celebrated around the world as St. Nicholas Day -- a day of remembering the generous saint by giving gifts and feasting.

There are many extraordinary stories of the bishop helping the needy, including one about a poor father of three daughters who had no dowry (payment for marriage) to offer potential husbands. With nothing to offer, the daughters would likely be sold into slavery. But three different times a bag of gold appeared at the home. Tossed through the window, legend has the bags of gold landing in shoes set before the fire to dry. And unknowingly today, we still practice a custom born out of this legend -- hanging stockings on the fireplace for Saint Nicholas to fill.

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated all over the world in different ways -- in many places, its the primary gift-giving day, not Christmas. Parents, don’t waste this opportunity to start a new tradition in your family. Tell your children about the real Saint Nicholas. Let his example help you teach about Jesus’s commands to care for the poor and needy. Be creative! It doesn’t have to replace Christmas, but do something special to remember Nicholas and his generosity. (Parents, its also a great way to remind ourselves a few things about the Christmas season and the Christian message of hope, sacrifice, and generosity.)

What Should Christians Do With Santa?

With the arrival of the holidays, one thing is certain - Santa will be imposed on your family in one way or another during this season. It’s impossible to avoid him. He’s at the mall. He’s on Coke cans. He’s on TV. He’s everywhere you look!

So what do we do? How should Christians respond? Navigating the holidays, with all of Santa’s myth and folklore, popularity and mystery, can be tricky for a people who know the real meaning of Christmas - which is Immanuel, “God with us.” Ultimately, there are three ways to deal with Santa: we can wholesale reject him, we can unquestioningly accept him, or we can intentionally (and carefully) incorporate him into a bigger picture - namely, the celebration of the incarnation and gracious giving.

This approach often demonizes Santa and turns him into a villain, a commercial fairy tale meant to encourage indulgence and greed. You’ll hear “Santa” is an anagram for “Satan,” and things like that. But the truth is, while there may be some things about Santa you want to reject in your family traditions, there may also be elements of Santa you want to keep around.

On the other end of the spectrum is the approach that can’t get enough Santa. Every myth, every tradition played out to its fullest - in blind embrace, this approach focuses entirely on toys and flying reindeer and elves, the whole story. However, as you think through Christmas traditions in your family, there may actually be some things that need to be rejected.

I think the truth is, most people live somewhere in between these extremes. Obviously, there are varying degrees of each of these approaches. And there are good things to be noted in each, as well as bad. So the last option might be the most responsible.

This mixing of the first two approaches takes the good, leaves the bad, and uses Santa to serve another purpose - telling the real Christmas story. Historically, Santa’s legend evolved from Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop known for generously helping the poor and children. Also, there are creative ways to let children flex their imaginations without being irresponsible or flippant. Mixing Santa into the Christmas tradition while still primarily celebrating the Advent story is possible - it just takes more work, more intentionality!

There are lots of great resources out there to expound the good and bad in each of these approaches, but the important thing to remember is that as Christians we are called to glorify God in everything we do, whether that’s eating or drinking (or celebrating Christmas) or whatever we do (1 Cor. 10.31).