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.

COMING UP: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo
1538-1606
Peru

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes
1618-1645
Ecuador

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes
1900-1920
Chile

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya
1874-1949
Colombia

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales
1898-1926
Mexico

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”