Of St. Nick and Christmas trees

Jared Staudt

On Dec. 6, the Church celebrated the patron saint of children, St. Nicholas (270 – 343 A.D.), bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). This saint became associated with giving gifts to children, because he saved three young girls from destitution and servitude by dropping bags of gold through the window (or perhaps through the chimney). His feast day constituted a major celebration in Europe and gave occasion for young boys to dress up as bishops. The Dutch, even after abandoning the Catholic faith, continued to celebrate the feast of children and brought it to the new world, and the celebration continued into the newly formed United States.

From the celebration of St. Nicholas came the invention of Santa Claus, first from a sketchbook by Washington Irving and then in 1822 within Clement Clarke Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (originally titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”). Moore added fantastical elements to the saint, such as reindeer and his sleigh, and connected him with giving gifts down the chimney. Later in 1881, cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Santa Claus the classic look we now expect, with the long white beard, red suit, and thick belt. Through these steps, a Catholic saint became a secular, cultural icon.

Another saint, Boniface, became linked to the tradition of the Christmas tree. A Benedictine monk from England, Boniface set out on a number of missionary journeys to Germany. He miraculously cut down a tree associated with pagan worship and appropriated it for Christian use. The connection of trees to Christmas grew stronger with their use in medieval mystery plays to represent the tree of paradise on Christmas Eve, using apples as decorations. In early modern Germany, the trees represented the new life of Christ, coming fresh and anew each Christmas even in the midst of winter, with red ornaments symbolizing his blood and candles representing the light of faith. With these traditional signs everywhere, Catholics can recover their religious meaning and reconnect them to Christ and the saints.

In this vein, local author Claudia McAdam offers a retelling of the origins of the Christmas tree in a children’s book, Kristoph and the First Christmas Tree: A Legend of St. Boniface (Paraclete, 2015). Set in Germany on Christmas Eve in the year 722, the missionary Boniface journeys through the snow with an orphan, Kristoph, as they come upon a pagan sacrifice before an oak tree. When Boniface challenges their worship of the oak, the chieftain asks him to prove he has more power than the tree. With one blow of the axe, Boniface toppled the large oak, as a smaller evergreen appeared on its stump. The saint uses the tree to teach the pagans about the gift of Christ:

“Boniface drew his fingers along a branch of the evergreen. ‘This child of the forest is the wood of peace. See how it points toward heaven?’ The men’s eyes lifted skyward. ‘It is the sign of endless life, for its branches are ever green. Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child. Gather around it, not in the wild woods, but in your homes. It shall not shelter evil deeds, but loving gifts and lights of kindness.”

Kristoph cuts down another tree, bringing it home to adorn the celebration. “A sharp, sweet scent of evergreen wrapped them like a quilt as they trudged onward toward hearth and home, happiness and hope — and a joyous celebration lit by a beeswax candle atop a Christmas tree.”

McAdam ends the book with a prayer of blessing for Christmas trees, helping families to recover the trees as a sign of Christ’s “endless life.” Although Santa Claus and Christmas trees both stem from the lives of saints, Catholics have to connect them to their origins. Telling the stories of these saints and saying prayers during the celebration can provide opportunities for evangelization and a deepening of the traditions we love by drawing them back to Christ.

COMING UP: The real Santa Claus was Catholic?

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By Monsignor Jorge de los Santos

Around this time of year, it’s common to see the Christmas celebration filled with marketing and consumerism, opening its doors to its employee of the month: “Santa Claus.” Christmas is the feast of the birth of the Son of God made man, but every year, Catholics face the challenge of trying to catch Jesus from the midst of so many parties, meals, presents, ornaments, responsibilities, etc.

Santa Claus is really St. Nicholas of Bari (or Myra), a fourth-century Catholic bishop in Turkey. (“Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, which means “St. Nicholas.”) Here are some aspects of the legend surrounding the saint that inspired the famous figure of Santa.

St. Nicholas of Bari was born in 310 A.D., in a time of persecution, in which the teachings of Christ were believed to oppose those of the Roman Empire. St. Nicholas’ parents were wealthy people and had instilled in their son a spirit of generosity, among other virtues. On one occasion, this would lead him to exchange his horse for a slave in an auction, so he could free him. He carried out all his works of charity in the name of Jesus, which led many to convert to Christianity with his example. After his parents died when he was still a young man, he began giving even more generously to those in need.

It’s said that on another occasion, he learned of three young women who wanted to marry, but whose father didn’t have the necessary means to marry them. When Nicholas found out, pretending to do a work of charity without being noticed, he dropped a few golden coins down the chimney, which coincidentally fell in the sewn cotton stockings the young ladies had left drying. This is the origin of the common practice of hanging stockings by the chimney and receiving gifts in them.

In St. Nicholas’ time, the emperor Diocletian ordered the eradication all Christians. It was around this time that St. Nicholas became bishop. In the midst of the persecution, he is said to never have lost his good sense of humor and joy, especially when talking with children about the birth of Jesus — thus Santa’s love for children and his “ho, ho, ho.”

In one of the persecutions, he was captured and imprisoned for almost 30 years. From his cell, he kept growing in holiness and prayed for the Church, even as the prison guards taunted him, telling him that the Christian faith was over.

When Constantine, the emperor of Rome, converted to Christianity, Bishop Nicholas was finally released. Now an old man with long hair and a white beard, he returned to his city to start the Church of Christ once again, convinced he was the only believer left.

His surprise was great when he arrived at the city and saw that the Cathedral had been rebuilt. He walked in to a singing choir — Christmas was being celebrated. Thus, his ties to Christmas.

To give a deeper meaning to this tradition, we must promote St. Nicholas’ example, who teaches us to be generous, to give to those in need and have a deep love for our neighbor. He teaches us to be attentive to the needs of others, to turn away from our selfishness, and to detach ourselves not only of material things, but also of our own selves and our time.

Nonetheless, with all of this in mind, the heart of Christmas is still the child Jesus, who is the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary in a stable in Bethlehem for the salvation of all peoples.