Yes Virginia, there really was a Santa Claus, well sort of. Did you know that the most popular Greek Orthodox Saint is St. Nicholas? There is a wonderful story that stems from Greek Orthodox traditions that speaks of St. Nicholas. He was born in 280 A.D. as an only child to an older wealthy couple. They lived in Patara, Asia Minor which in our day is known as Turkey.
His parents died from a plague leaving him all of their wealth. Nicholas was very much a man of God and he gave freely yet anonymously so that the glory would be given to God.
There’s an interesting story about an incident with a bankrupt merchant. At this time creditors would threaten to not only take the merchants’ house and property but they also threatened to take the children. They would be able to sell the children into slavery or worse. As you could imagine, this frightened the merchant who had three daughters. So he decided to marry them off as quickly as possible but there was one problem. He had no dowry to offer. Nicholas heard about the mans dilemma and decided to go late during the night and throw a bag of money through the window for the dowry of the oldest daughter. It was told that the money landed in a stocking that was drying by the fireplace. He then did again for the next two daughters. The third time, the father caught Nicholas and Nicholas made him promise to keep it a secret of where he received the money because he wanted all of the credit to go to God.
After he gave all of his money away Nicholas wanted to join the Monastery of Sion so he left on a Pilgrimage. The first place he would visit would be the birthplace of Jesus. Somehow, the Lord impressed upon him “not to hide his light under a bushel.” He then returned to Asia Minor to a Mediterranean port on the southern coast.
What he didn’t know was that the bishop had just died and the church leaders were having a difficult time deciding on who would become the next bishop. Due to a dream of one of the church leaders, they asked Nicholas to become the Bishop of Myra. After some resistance he did agree and accepted the responsibility.
As Bishop of Myra and a devout Christian, he would be persecuted for not denying his faith by Emperor Diocletian. Once freed by Emperor Constantine who ended the three-century-long persecution of Christians, Nicholas would learn of the Arian Heresy, which was beginning to split the Christian church. He then attended the Council of Nicea with other bishops to settle it and they wrote the Nicene Creed. After attending the Council of Nicea he became angry at Arius for starting this heresy. He would preach against sexual immorality which led to the people of Myra tearing down their temple to Diana. This temple would be similar to the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean world so this was quite an accomplishment. He even confronted dishonest politicians and would publicly reveal their immoral acts through divine insight. The Greek Orthodox tradition has credited many miraculous answers to St. Nicholas’ prayers. Nicholas died December 6, 343 A.D.
In Revelation 19:14 it speaks of the armies which were in Heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. Since Nicholas was a saint they believe he would be one of many returning with Jesus riding a white horse. The Greeks would enhance this story with St. Nicholas returning once a year for a mini pre-judgment day to check on the children to see if they were following the right path. In Norway, there were no horses, so they have St. Nicholas riding a reindeer.
The Saints coming from Heaven, the New Jerusalem or the Celestial City would now become the North Pole. The Lamb’s Book of Life and Book of Works would become the Book of “naughty and nice” and the angels became elves.
The Dutch would have St. Nicholas give presents once a year to the “good” children and his helper would put the naughty children in gunny sacks and take them to Spain where they would be sold into slavery.
Nicholas was a bishop and in the beginning St. Nicholas wore a bishop outfit but in 1809 he would be described as wearing a typical Dutch outfit of long trunk hose, leather belt, boots and a stocking hat by Washington Irving. In 1823, Clement Moore wrote a poem for his children “A Visit from St. Nicholas” describing St. Nicholas as a jolly old elf.
So as you can now understand where many of these traditions about Santa Claus came from there really was a devout, saintly man who became a heroic Bishop in 4th century Asia Minor named Nicholas who loved Jesus so much that he would be persecuted and go into the ministry, preach against the pagan temples, confront corrupt politicians and generously give to the poor.
There is a very interesting book that discusses this in much more detail by one of my favorite historians and authors William J. Federer. The name of the book is There Really Is A Santa Claus and you can find it on Amazon for under twenty dollars.