Like many Americans, I have long known the story of Santa Claus, the jolly white-bearded man who fills my stocking on Christmas morning. From the North Pole to Rudolf, I thought that I had my story complete. So I was intrigued when a Christmastime conversation with my Belgian boyfriend provided a new piece of the story.
In the US, depending on the Christmas jingle you listen to, you may refer to the man in the red suit as Santa Claus, St. Nicholas or even Kris Kringle. Well, as I recently learned, Santa Claus comes from the Dutch word for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas. It turns out that St. Nick is a 3rd century Greek Bishop. He is the patron Saint of children and sailors and is venerated around the world. St. Nicholas is known for his good deeds, his holy life and is even regarded as the Wonder-Worker. Texts that I read often referred to his gift-giving and one described it in this way, “Nicholas gave in secret, alert to others’ needs, and expecting nothing for himself in return.” (www.saintnicholascenter.org)
Fast forward almost a thousand years to modern day holiday gift traditions.
Today, in Belgium, children celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas (or Sinterklaas) on December 6th. They place their shoes in front of the fireplace, or at the door, and hope to receive a gift from St. Nick in them. Unlike in the United States, where we hang stockings to be filled on Christmas Eve, many country’s gift traditions occur on the December 6th feast day.
As our American Christmas gift-giving has become more commercialized, I am glad to discover it has other roots. It is nice to learn about Santa Claus’s saintly ties in the midst of the miracle of Jesus birth. As a poem from J. Rosenthal and C. Myers reads:
“Santa Claus encourages consumption;
St. Nicholas encourages compassion.
Santa Claus, for some, replaces the Babe of Bethlehem;
St. Nicholas, for all, points to the Babe of Bethlehem.”
So as we celebrate the coming of our Lord, may we remember the foundation of our Christmas gift-giving in the kindness of a Saint, living out his love for the baby Jesus.