Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus…but his home is probably not quite where you thought it was. Instead of huddling near a fire keeping warm in a frozen arctic night, the real Santa Claus enjoyed walking along the warm, peaceful waters of the Mediterranean Sea. But he was generous, and he drew his inspiration from Christ Jesus, whose birth we now celebrate.
Last week my wife visited a Turkish book fair at our boys’ school and met the author of a little child’s book entitled “Saint Nicholas.” As she read it aloud to the children that evening, I listened—with some skepticism; I must be honest—to the story of a 4th-century man from the southern coast of modern Turkey. Born to wealthy parents, who died when he was very small, Nicholas of Patara eventually decided to pursue the simple lifestyle of Jesus and generously share his money with the poor. His reputation spread in the region, not unlike that of Fort Wayne’s Johnny Appleseed, and people began to naturally look to him as a caring leader. Later in life Nicholas became a bishop and the news of his extraordinary care for the poor, for the oppressed, for orphans and others in distress extended far and wide.
On December 6th, 350 AD Nicholas died in Myra. In the following centuries the villagers memorialized him with churches. In the 11th century the village was razed in battles, but since 1960 the Turkish government has restored the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra and discovered, among other things, Saint Nicholas’ final resting-place.
In the last couple of centuries the facts of Saint Nicholas’ life have been mixed with countless fanciful ideas taken from northern European myths and legends. In the 1930’s Coca-Cola advertisements further developed the holiday image of the jolly ole’ elf.
We finished the book; I’ve cast aside my skepticism. Okay, I’ll continue to enjoy playing along with the guy from the North Pole. At the same time, with a deeper sense of repeat and appreciation, I’ll remember the real St. Nick of Asia Minor (whose homeland I now occupy) and his point that it really is much more blessed to give than to receive.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Santa Land!