A reader writes:
I've read about the custom of leaving shoes out for Saint Nicholas to put treats in on his feast day, and I'd like to start this with my children. But my children still believe in Santa Claus, and I'm having some trouble trying to figure out how to explain why we sometimes call him Santa Claus and sometimes call him Saint Nicholas. What would you tell them?
For 1,500 years, Saint Nicholas of Myra has been one of the most popular saints in Europe, but it's only in recent years that he's been "rediscovered" in the United States. Part of his newfound popularity, I believe, has to do with a healthy reaction against the overcommercialization of Christmas, of which Santa Claus has long been a symbol.
But wait--aren't Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus the same person? Not really.
There is a connection between the two, but it's less than many people think. Santa Claus is an American invention, an anglicization of Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. The Dutch, though Protestants, brought the European tradition of celebrating the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6) to America. English settlers liked the custom, but they didn't like the idea of celebrating the saint's feast day.
Thus, while they borrowed certain elements of the life of Saint Nicholas (his generosity and his love for children, for instance), they placed Santa Claus's home, the North Pole, about as far away from Asia Minor (Saint Nicholas's home) as they could. Some elements of the earliest depictions of Santa Claus, in fact, are drawn from Nordic legends, and physically, he resembles elements of both Thor and Odin.
The identification of Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas largely comes from a poem by Clement Moore, A Visit From St. Nicholas, which most people today know as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. While Moore identifies the title character as Saint Nicholas, his physical description, clothing, and his use of a sleigh and reindeer, along with the transfer of his visit from the night before Saint Nicholas's feast day to the night before Christmas, defined the modern picture of Santa Claus. (As David Emery, About.com's Guide to Urban Legends, points out, Moore's depiction also draws on English images of fat and jolly Dutchmen.)
From the time of the publication of Moore's poem in 1823, the historical figure of Saint Nicholas has faded into the background, replaced by the American fairy tale. In itself, the fairy tale is fine, and Fr. Francis X. Weiser, S.J., in a little book entitled Religious Customs in the Family: The Radiation of the Liturgy Into Catholic Homes, suggests that Catholic families can maintain the fairy tale.
At the same time, however, they should do as the reader is considering doing and revive devotion to Saint Nicholas. Treating December 6 as a significant feast day is one way to do so. On December 5, children can leave their shoes at the fireplace or outside their bedroom doors, and Saint Nicholas can visit in the middle of the night, leaving small toys, coins, and candy.
Then, on the feast day itself, the family can read about Saint Nicholas--the historical figure, not Santa Claus--and pray some prayers and sing some hymns to the saint. Coming in the first week or two of Advent, the Feast of Saint Nicholas provides a foretaste of Christmas--and unlike Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas always reminds us that Christ is the reason for the season.
(Icon of Saint Nicholas of Myra, bishop and wonderworker. The Feast of Saint Nicholas is December 6. Photo © Slava Gallery, LLC; used with permission.)
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