Santa Claus, More than a Jolly Old Elf

by Derrick G. Jeter

For seventeen centuries his legend has graced the lips of faithful saints, the poor and downtrodden, and good little boy and girls across the globe. But no matter how great his legend, his legacy is greater still.
Bill Bennett, in a new Christmas book, The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas, has peered through the centuries of legend that has shrouded the historical Saint Nicholas and has painted a portrait of a man composed of flesh and blood. He has given us, almost as a gift, the man that has been lost amidst the tinsel, bows, and lights—the man hiding behind the white beard, red fur-lined suit, and round belly. Divided into three parts—Life of Nicholas, Legends of Nicholas, and Legacy of Nicholas—Bennett has written a compelling narrative of the Bishop of Myra, who, in the early history of the Christian Church, served his God and his people faithfully. As Bennett writes, Nicholas may have played an important role in the Council of Nicaea, which, among 318 bishops, developed a Creed affirming the divinity of Jesus and insisting that God had invaded human history in the birth of Jesus.
Included in Bennett’s history of Nicholas is the famous story of how he placed three bags of gold into the shoe or stocking of a poor family. This story, and others that spread throughout Asia Minor into Europe and Russia, became the foundation of many Christmas legends and traditions. Bennett treats the morphing of Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus quickly, but convincingly. In the conclusion Bennett writes, “At [Santa Claus’s] best, he stands for virtues that Saint Nicholas champions: compassion, service, selflessness, largeness of spirit. . . . So now you know something of who Saint Nicholas was, and of how Santa Claus came to be. Saint Nicholas’s bags of gold have become Santa’s sack of toys. It is a piece of history worth knowing, especially at Christmastime. May it help us remember the true spirit of Christmas and the message of loving one another brought to us by a babe in a manger so long ago.” [1]
Bennett has done us a great service, not necessarily in explaining the twists and turns of how Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus, but in recapturing the real man of compassion, generosity, and largeness of soul. Whereas in our popular minds Santa Claus points to the commercialism of Christmas, Saint Nicholas points to the Christ of Christmas. Santa Claus may represent the best of Saint Nicholas, but the real Nicholas represented Christ during a time when darkness dominated the hearts and minds of men and women. What Nicholas knew, and what we should ever remember, is that Christmas isn’t for good little boys and girls, but for bad boys and girls—for that is the reason why the babe was born and the reason we celebrate His birth. The greatest gift was given more than 2,000 years ago. Saint Nicholas gladly accepted that gift—the gift of forgiveness and life eternal through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And that is the real story of Saint Nicholas, and of Christmas.
[1] William J. Bennett, The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas (New York: Howard Books, 2009), 113–14.