The real Santa Claus was Catholic?

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.

COMING UP: Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

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Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr