I think every Christmas, apart from the Holy Family, another dominant figure plays an important role in the festivities, particularly that of popular culture: Santa Claus. Most of us already know that this popular red-faced and jolly character was inspired by the figure of St Nicholas, a bishop in the city of Myra. Aside from stories of his compassion and generosity (with said stories becoming the basis of the generous and compassionate nature of good old Santa Claus), many of us (me included) know little else of his life. As I read up more about the life of St Nicholas, he struck me as someone who was very different from the Santa Claus of popular culture. While many of his legends stemmed around his propensity to help those who needed help, his fierce devotion to God was what ran counter to the Santa Claus we all know. This was a man unafraid of his faith, a man who was willing to defend his faith and his brothers and sisters despite any circumstances.
Not much is authentically known about the life of St Nicholas. Born in the third century in the village of Patara (in modern day Turkey), St Nicholas was raised a devout Catholic by his wealthy parents. Their premature death due to an epidemic left young Nicholas with their vast inheritance. Instead of using this money to make a life for himself, he devoted his entire inheritance to help the poor and studied under his uncle to become a priest. When he moved to Myra as part of his vocation, he was chosen to become the next Bishop of Myra. While Bishop, St Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians. He was soon released when the emperor Constantine came into power. As Bishop, St Nicholas defended the faith against the heresies that were brewing up, chief amongst them was Arianism (a major heresy at that time that denied the divinity of Christ), as well as against paganism. Stories even claimed that he slapped Arius during the Council of Nicaea (so much for jolly old Santa Claus!). He died a peaceful death in AD 343, where it was said that manna formed in his grave, a reminder of God’s generosity through the feeding of His people. Even in death, it seemed as though he became an instrument for the world to marvel at God’s generosity and continues to do so as a beloved saint in many countries and even as Santa Claus to the masses.
While his stories of Spirit-filled compassion for the poor and needed inspire me, I am more amazed at the strength of his faith to God, the righteous anger he feels against those who would blaspheme against his beloved God. It was said that it was this righteousness which prevented the teaching of Arianism to take root in his city of Myra. In a world like ours that is filled with so many different perspectives, so many different lifestyles, it seems difficult, if not outright impossible, to find myself as on fire with the faith as he had; so in love with God as he was. Maybe in this time and age, such an outright display of religiosity would have had an opposite effect instead. Who knows? But for me at least, it was that burning desire for goodness, for justice, for love and for God that drove him to do those things that I am edified and inspired by; the same passion that we’ve seen in Jesus as he drove the money changers out from the temple area.
As I reflect on the life of St Nicholas more and more, a common theme was this notion of injustice; of righting wrongs and upholding God’s justice. His compassion for those who were needy, those who have lost their dignities in the eyes of man due to poverty and circumstances, those who were wrongly accused – these are the brothers and sisters he chose to serve in God’s name. His firm conviction to re-establish the inherent dignities of his less fortunate brothers and sisters through his acts of charity and mercy have always stemmed from a foundational belief of the Catholic Church; that every human life is sacred and is dignified for we are all willed in the image and likeness of God. Beyond simply material gifts and money, the greater gift he gave them was the restoration of their inherent dignity in God.
As the Christmas season dies down and as we enter into Ordinary Time, may we continue to be inspired by the example of the real Santa Claus; a man who was joyful in defending the faith, a man who was joyful in restoring the lost dignities of his brothers and sisters and a man who was joyful in the Lord!
© 2019 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan