Christmas cookies left out for Santa, plus carrots for his reindeer. And the next morning presents under the tree, and stockings stuffed with goodies. For most Americans, this is Santa Claus.
But the history and traditions surrounding the jolly old elf date back another 1500 years. They take us to the church of Saint Nicholas in Myra Turkey.
Nicholas was born here around 280 AD. Growing up, he lived a pious life pursuing God. When his parents died during a plague, Nicholas was left with a huge inheritance. Instead of spending it on himself, he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and helped those in debt to moneylenders.
One of his acts of kindness gave us our tradition of hanging Christmas stockings. Legend has it that a father was about to be forced to marry off his daughters to pay his debts. Knowing the man couldn't pay the debts himself, Nicholas crept into the house while everyone was asleep and left three bags of gold. One is said to have fallen into a stocking drying by the fireplace. Nicholas was so generous with his wealth, he lived the life of a pauper, and at times had nowhere to lay his head except the house of God. Seeing how much he sacrificed for others, the church elected Nicholas bishop over the region. But it wasn't an easy era for the church.
One of the worst times in Christian persecution came under Emperor Diocletian. Now, Nicholas spent years in prison, oftentimes being tortured. This was also when Constantine was fighting for control over this region and had his famous dream vision of the chi-rho symbol and the words "in this sign you shall conquer." When Constantine won the day, Christian persecution ended and Nicholas was free.
After his release, Nicholas resumed his position and was considered one of the top Christian leaders in the empire. He was one of more than 300 bishops on the Council of Nicea, which created the Nicene Creed to help unify the church. As an outspoken follower of Christ, Nicholas continued to face death threats for the rest of his life. But he never stepped away from his faith.
This is the very spot where Nicholas preached. His life, his ministry, and his death are encapsulated in the church. He died December 6th, 343, and was entombed in a sarcophagus inside the church.
Over the centuries, many traditions were associated with Saint Nicholas. But it was the act of giving gifts on the anniversary of his early December death that became the most popular.
In Nicholas' day, people believed that angels wrote names down in the book of life. That transitioned into elves keeping a record of the naughty and nice.
Around the world, there are many different images of father Christmas, from Pere Noel in France to the German gift giver, Sinter Claus, who rides a donkey. Countries such as Norway and Sweden didn't have many horses or donkeys, so Nicholas got around riding a reindeer. And the "eight tiny reindeer" we've all heard about, well that was Clement Moore's creation in his 1823 poem "A visit from Saint Nick," or "'T'was the night before Christmas."
And just like the belief that Jesus and the saints will return to earth from a celestial city, the New Jerusalem became Saint Nicholas's home and workshop at the north pole.
So, many of our Christmas traditions find their origin in the Bible, and with this pious Saint.
But what can we learn from Saint Nicholas? Well for one, we need to remember that no matter how difficult our lives become, we should stay focused first on God, as Nicholas did… and of course, the most obvious lesson is that it's better to give than to receive. After all, that's the way Nicholas lived his life based on the example set by Jesus Christ.