“I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents I want,” young Sally writes to Santa Claus in the TV classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself. Just send money. How about tens and twenties?”
Every December, millions tune in to watch Charlie Brown struggle to find the true meaning of Christmas. The program is a holiday favorite partly because it tackles a problem we all know to be true. Too often, this time of year seems to be all about getting gifts and putting up decorations. Santa Claus, with his bottomless sack of toys, becomes the symbol-in-chief for a month-long shopping fest.
If you’re searching for the real Christmas spirit, take a look at Saint Nicholas, the Christian bishop who lived during the fourth century in what is now Turkey, and whose name we associate so much with Santa Claus.
There is an old story about Nicholas and his remarkable generosity. When he was a young man living in his hometown of Patara, word reached him that a nearby family had fallen on hard times. The desperate parents were too poor to provide dowries so that their three daughters could marry. They decided that the only way to keep their children from starving was to sell them into servitude.
Nicholas put a few gold coins he had inherited into a small bag and, one night when the family was sleeping, tossed it through a window into their home. It was enough money to provide a dowry for the oldest daughter, who was soon married.
When Nicholas saw the effects of his gift, he returned and tossed another bag of gold through the window so the second daughter could be married. When he came several nights later with a third bag, the tearful father was waiting to see who their secret benefactor was. Nicholas begged him not to tell anyone, but his act of generosity set him on the path to becoming the world’s most famous gift giver.
Nicholas was a man of God who worked tirelessly for his flock. But the most remarkable part of his story comes after his death. People began to tell stories about the bishop and his power to change people’s hearts. Because all the good he did was a kind of miracle, they told stories of the miraculous—stories of a man who could accomplish things no ordinary person could.
One old tale tells of Nicholas when he was living in the town of Myra, on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, during a time of severe famine. Hearing that some ships carrying grain from Alexandria to Constantinople had stopped off at Myra’s port, he hurried to ask the captains to sell some of their cargo. “We can’t,” they told him. “If we arrive in Constantinople with less than a full hold, we must answer for it.”
Nicholas led them through Myra’s streets to show them the desperate people. “Trust in God,” he said. “Look into your hearts and do what you know to be right.”
The captains talked it over and decided to unload a portion of their grain. They sailed off knowing they would have some explaining to do in Constantinople. And yet, the story goes, when they reached port, they were astounded to find just as much grain in their holds as when they had left Alexandria.
Such are the stories of Nicholas that have come down to us through the centuries. With time, he became known as the Wonderworker. He was an international phenomenon in the Old World. By the end of the fifteenth century, more than 2,500 churches, monasteries, hospitals, schools, and works of art had been dedicated to him in Western Europe.
His reputation suffered during the Reformation, when Protestants turned against traditions surrounding the saints. The most zealous reformers took hammers to sculptures of Nicholas and other saints. They smashed stained-glass windows depicting their deeds. Pages containing lives of the saints were used to polish boots or wrap fish.
Nicholas was driven from many churches, but he could not be driven from people’s hearts. Over the centuries, something extraordinary happened. He moved into homes and became a hero of the hearth.
In America, of course, he transformed into the champion bringer of gifts. Those three bags of gold became Santa’s sack of toys. Yes, Santa Claus (whose name comes from Sinterklass, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas) is sometimes overexposed and exploited. At his best, though, he stands for virtues that Saint Nicholas championed: generosity, selflessness, largeness of spirit.
So if we’re looking for models of generosity, let’s not forget the original Saint Nick. Santa Claus, in a very real sense, is the manifestation of his decision to give to others. May the good old bishop help us remember and keep the true spirit of Christmas.
Bill Bennett is the author of a new edition of The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas (Howard Books, 2018).