The Real Santa Claus: The Brawling, Persecuted, Abolitionist Saint

Folklore sometimes skews reality. Many times it keeps us from remembering that a particular “reality” ever even existed.

Saint Nicholas was a compelling church leader and historical figure before legend claimed that he ran an elf sweat shop.  Believe it or not, Saint Nick was not a jolly obese dude with loads of reindeer love and omnipresent abilities on the eve of  Christmas. As we often do with history, the subjects of our contemporary traditions are made too sanitary and domesticated.

Much is lost when this happens; in the case of “Santa Claus” almost everything is lost that is actually noble about the patron saint of children and widows.

James Parker, professor and associate dean of worldview and culture at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, points out some intriguing reasons to get acquainted with the real Saint Nick:

The story goes that Nicholas was born in A.D. 280 to pious and wealthy parents who raised him in the fear and admonition of the Lord and taught him “sacred books” from the age of 5. He was forced to grow up quickly upon the sudden death of his parents.

The first opportunity to do this happened when he heard about a father who, through an unfortunate turn of events, was left destitute with three daughters. Without marriage dowry money, the daughters would be condemned to a life of singleness and prostitution, so Nicholas threw some small bags of gold coins into the window of the home (some traditions say down the chimney), thereby saving the children from a life of misery.

Saint Nicholas was an advocate for human rights and the cultural “least of these.” He wouldn’t necessarily care if posh Western kids had the latest iPhone or game console, but he did care about little girls who would be subject to the demonic underworld of prostitution and human trafficking. Before he was even a notable church bishop Saint Nick practiced the pure and undefiled religion of James 1:27.

This Christmas, would we have a heart for the true religion the Father desires? Give to the forgotten and starving children of the third world here —> Give to those still enslaved by modern human trafficking (even in the United States) here—>

As a young man, Nicholas felt called to become a bishop in the Monastery of Holy Zion near Myra.  His congregation accepted him gladly and admired his boldness to preach against the false gods of paganism and spiritual relativism. Such a radical confession ensured Saint Nick would be a target whipping boy for the religious and political leaders of the Roman Empire.

In A.D. 303, Emperor Diocletian directed the persecution of Christians. Nicholas was the chief Christian priest of his city and an unashamed emissary of the gospel; as a result he was seized by the Roman magistrates, tortured, and then chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians. Parker goes on:

Those who survived Diocletian’s purges were called “confessors” because they wouldn’t renege on their confession of Jesus as Lord. When Bishop Nicholas walked out of the prison (after Constantine’s Edict of Milan), the crowds called to him: “Nicholas! Confessor!” He had been repeatedly beaten until he was raw, and his body was the color of vermilion. Bishop Nicholas was also said to have intervened on behalf of unjustly charged prisoners and actively sought to help his people survive when they had experienced two successive bad harvests.

Saint Nick bore the stripes of his Savior on his own back. The inspired words of the maligned Apostle rang true with him: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12)

Instead of feeding the insatiable beast of consumerism, would we give to our persecuted brethren this Christmas? There are precious lambs being led to the slaughter right now for the sake of the Lamb of God (John 1:29) Go here to ease and share their burden —>

One of the most interesting stories connected with him was his role during the Arian controversy. St. Methodius asserted that “thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.” (Arius, of course, asserted that Jesus was a created being and had not existed from all eternity.)

One weak tradition has him actually attending the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, when Arian doctrine was rejected. The story goes that he got into a heated debate with Arius himself about whether there was a time when the Word (Jesus) did not exist. Nicholas strongly disagreed.

The debate ended suddenly when Nicholas punched Arius then and there on the floor of the council.

I know the particulars of this story may come from weak “tradition” but I assume such tradition would never have had early legs if one thing were not true: Saint Nick took biblical fidelity very seriously. What would this rendition of Saint Nick do to the contemporary sanitized version?

“No kids. Santa doesn’t want to eat your cookies. But he will give you a knuckle sandwich if you don’t have a biblical Christology.”

Saint Nick was a contender of the true faith and a passionate proponent of Scriptural orthodoxy. I’m not saying we should throw fisticuffs with our theological opponents, I am saying we shouldn’t have a limp wristed wishy-washy approach to biblical truth.

I am suggesting old Nicholas would despise the shrugging, doubting, hem hawing of postmodern Christianity.

Some of the links to the right, particularly under the “Theology” tab, do a stand-up job of contending for the faith once and for all handed down to the saints (Jude 1:3).

We should always be diligent to keep “Christ” in Christmas. But while we’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to resurrect and demythologize the real “Santa.” The real Santa teaches us that real men protect the marginalized, prepare for persecution, and preach an uncompromising biblical gospel.

Maybe that’s a Santa worth inviting into your household this Christmas season.

Bryan Daniels

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