As much fun as it is to imagine Santa Claus as a jolly old man at the north pole with a toy-building shop, we should try to keep in mind the real man—Saint Nicholas—who inspired much of the Santa Claus tradition. Today is the Feast of Saint Nicholas in most Catholic and Orthodox traditions (some celebrate it on the 19th of December instead), and thus today is a wonderful time to meditate on the real ‘Jolly Old Saint Nick.’

Nicholas is among the early Christian saints, those who lived and worked in a unified Christian church during its first millennium. He lived from AD 270 until AD 346—more than 500 years before the great schism between east and west and well-over 1,000 years before the Protestant reformation. As such, he is recognized (to varying degrees) by pretty much all extant Christian denominations that still believe in the ‘communion of saints’ as professed in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds.

His full titles are “Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, [and] Holy Hierarch,” and his patronage is of bakers and pawnbrokers (oddly enough). He was a Greek who rose to the rank of Bishop in the then-Greek city of Myra, which is now known as Kale or Demre and is part of Turkey. He would often secretly leave gifts of coins or goods for people to find, and there are many tales of his generosity. Among these are stories of his paying three womens’ dowries so that they might be permitted to marry, saving prisoners who had been condemned to death, and more. Apparently he wished to remain anonymous in his gift giving; he did not seek fame or thanks, but just wished to serve God by doing good for people in need.

These and other stories of Saint Nicholas’s deep faith and generosity evolved into the Dutch folk legend of a gift-giving ‘Sint Nikolaas’ or ‘Sinterklaas,’ which then evolved into the western myth of Santa Claus. Of course, the Santa story mysteriously moves the saint from Greece to the north pole, changes him from an early Christian saint into a timeless fairy-tale character, and tries to make him into some kind of secular giver instead of the devout servant of God that he really was. Go figure.

I hope you will take some time to meditate today on the real man, the Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, and Holy Hierarch . . . not the folk hero, drained of all spiritual meaning, that Santa Claus has become.

“O God, who adorned the blessed Nicholas thy priest with innumerable miracles, grant to us, we beseech, that by his favors and prayers we be freed from the fires of hell. Through our Lord Jesus Christ thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, O God, world without end. Amen.” – Sixteenth Century Prayer to Saint Nicholas