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Nicholas, Santa, … and Jesus

A Michigan woman’s website helps distinguish the fundamental Christmas figure from a saint — and from the guy in the red suit

Here comes Christmas. Is it about Jesus? Santa Claus? St. Nicholas? A one-woman operation in Michigan pries the three apart with her website for what she calls the St. Nicholas Center.

“It’s helpful for people to understand that there is a real person of faith behind Santa Claus,” says Carol Myers of Holland, Michigan. That, she thinks, lets us “focus more on the birth of Jesus, on compassion rather than consumption. On giving rather than receiving.”

“The Charity of Saint Nicholas,” by Bulgarian icon artist Milka Botcheva, is part of the St Nicholas Center Collection. Image courtesy of St. Nicholas Center, www.stnicholascenter.org

A gracious act by a good bishop has gone viral, but it’s also gone crazy.

Is it too strong to say we have a Santa Claus fixation? Somehow the astonishing incarnation event — God becoming human — is incongruous if we obsess about a guy in a red suit who frequents shopping malls and then plunges down chimneys.

Let’s deconstruct this. Herewith, the history of this strange character named Santa Claus.

Pious bishop

It begins with Jesus, of course, but it continues with a pious bishop named Nicholas who lived in the fourth century in the southwest of what now is Turkey.

Since the 1960s, Myers and her family have observed the festivals of the church year. Of course, in early December, they encountered St. Nicholas.

An Episcopalian who at that time was attending a Lutheran church in Iowa, Myers has become devoted to the importance of St. Nicholas — and distinguishing him from his red-suited proxy. She launched a Nicholas website in 2002. To help support it she set up a nonprofit that sells St. Nicholas-related items over the Web. Myers receives 800 orders or more from mid-October to mid-December. All told, she sold about 2,500 items last year. Prices run to $63.

However, Myers insists, “it really isn’t about selling things. The online shop is only to make available things that would be hard to find otherwise.”

Mysterious figure

Luther never denied the importance of the saints. Rather, he affirmed that baptism makes us all saints. But, Luther contended, it was still okay to acknowledge Roman Catholic saints in the tradition of the church: Admire them. Respect them. Even emulate them in some ways. Yet Luther, the story goes, was worried about St. Nicholas — a saint dear to Germans. Luther feared that Nicholas was too much venerated.

The cover of St. Nicholas magazine from 1916

St. Nicholas is a mysterious figure. We have little documentary evidence about him. One of his more believable legends is about the three girls whose father was too poor to afford dowries. That meant, in the extreme, that the father may have to sell the daughters into slavery — prostitution.

To prevent it, the story goes, Nicholas sold his own goods and threw the proceeds — three bags of coins — into a window of their home.

The Nicholas legend persisted and grew: Now, a gracious act by a good bishop has gone viral, but it’s also gone crazy.

Somehow, the good bishop became Santa Claus. It’s a mystery. Children in Europe by A.D. 1100 came to expect gifts from St. Nicholas at Christmas. Eventually came the red suit and white beard — and nowadays, an orgy of mammon: Buying and giving of gifts we may not be able to afford — which recipients may not even want. And the entire U.S. economy depends on this fourth-quarter splurge. One would challenge an anthropologist from Mars to try to figure it out.

The figure we now know as Santa Claus emerged about 1820, says historian Gerry Bowler of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. The cuddly traditional Christmas stuff about sleigh bells, reindeer, and chimneys dates to this period. You’ll note the period costumes and settings in your favorite Christmas images and stories.

The Dutch tradition of a Santa Claus, based on St. Nicholas of Myra, had followed immigrants to what now is New York, where by the early 19th century Christmas had turned into a drunken street-festival carousel, says Bowler.

Some well-meaning authors and artists endeavored to tame it and turn the midwinter outdoor celebration of Christ’s birth into an indoor holiday suitable for children. We still read the work of one of them, Clement C. Moore’s (1779-1863) “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

And that is how St. Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus. For Lutherans, there is one ironic twist.

The ascetic monk who after fervent study of scripture insisted that salvation came only by grace through faith and not by works, may have, shall we say, adapted that principle a bit after he married and became a father.

At that point, come Christmas, Luther endorsed the notion that children who were good would get presents. Children who were bad got mud in their stockings — or, transliterated directly from Luther himself, says historian Bowler, “horse apples.”

More information about the St. Nicholas Center is available at www.stnicholascenter.org.

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