They say that every legend begins with a true story. This is a true story.
It is a story that is very old – but it a story that never gets old. The story explains a lot of why we do what we do at Christmas. And it needs to be told again and again.
The legend is about a man you think you already know. He is, after all, everywhere this time of year. You see him in movies, on television and in places where you shop and hold parties. We sing about him in songs and read about him in books. Many kids believe in him. Some do not. Many adults love him. Some adults do not.
How can you know? How can you find out? Where is the truth behind the legend of Santa Claus?
The truth doesn’t come from where we see him now. The truth won’t be found in movies, songs or poems. The truth of him, the man, is the same as it is for all of us: it lies in where we come from.
He was born long, long ago.
He did not come from the North Pole. And he didn’t come from Finland. In fact, he was born so long ago that the place where he came from then is no longer named the same as it was those many years ago. He was born in a tiny village in what we now call Turkey – a place not far away and at a time not long after Jesus Christ walked the earth.
This is important to know because he knew all about the Savior. He believed in him.
He was born of parents who loved him and who taught him all the stories of Jesus – of His miracles, His life, and His ministry. He was a happy boy. His mother called him Nicolas.
For the first ten years of his life he knew little sorrow. In fact, as the child of wealthy parents, Nicholas didn’t need a thing in the world. His parents, while rich, loved him deeply and he was very close to both his mother and his father. But then, as happens to some people sometimes, Nicholas ran into a tough time. When he was ten both of his parents died, leaving Nicholas alone in the world.
Not knowing what to do Nicholas turned to the one resource he had that he felt he could trust – Jesus Christ.
He went to the Church and explained to them there that he wanted to live a life worthy of being with his parents again. He believed that if he lived so well that God would grant him the love of his mother and his father again.
Nicholas then grew up under the direction of loving men of the Church, who taught him how to teach people and help them with their needs. Nicholas did have a good heart and relished the work given to him in the Church. He was, in fact, so good and so obedient and so helpful that it was a surprise to everyone – except those he served – when he became the youngest bishop ever in the history of the Church at that time.
Now, there is one thing about this story you need to understand. It happened a long, long time ago. It happened before there were telephones; before the Internet; before television or newspapers, or texting or even the telegraph. Back in those days a man would be considered lucky if he ever traveled more than 50 miles from where he was born. And the chances that a person could become famous around the world were almost impossible. And yet this boy – the orphan boy who became Bishop – would by the time he was grown would become world famous. By the time he was grown his story would be known and retold over and over again.
People who never met him would name their children after him. Places where he had never visited would bear his name. In the old world – which is what we call the place and the time he lived – more than 2000 Churches would be named after him and countless stories about the good he did would be told generation after generation.
What did he do that made him so famous?
There are many stories. It is hard, as legends sometimes go, to know which of these stories are true.
But there is one story about him that feels right and rings true to anyone who has ever received an orange in the toe of their Christmas stocking on Christmas morning.
As Bishop, it was Nicholas’ job, as it is for bishops everywhere now, to see to the needs of those who attend live around him. And there was in the place where Nicholas was Bishop a poor man with three daughters.
Remember that this was in the old world- – a different time and a different place. Back then, if a person didn’t have the money to get married by the time they were grown they might, in very extreme circumstances, be sold into slavery, to pay the debt to his parents for his upbringing.
It was especially hard for a family to sell a daughter into slavery and that is exactly what this poor man with three daughters was thinking he would have to do as his eldest daughter was approaching the age to be married.
Somehow, Bishop Nicholas heard of this family’s problem and he wanted to do something about it.
Now, the man who was the head of this family was a very proud man. He might be poor but he and all in his house worked hard. They had no need for charity. They believed in taking care of themselves. In fact, the man was so proud that he was afraid some times to show his face at Church, lest Bishop Nicholas would learn just how tough his circumstances were.
Because of this man’s pride, Nicholas knew he couldn’t just visit the man and give him the money. No, if the man was to receive the gift needed to save his daughter a life of misery it would have to be given in such a way that the man would never know where it came from.
In Nicolas’ mind the gift he needed to give was free. The man didn’t need his pride to accept it because nothing was needed in return for the gift. The gift was a gift of love, much like the gift of the Savior. God so loved the world, Bishop Nicholas knew, that he gave his only begotten son – a tremendous gift given freely to all mankind. His gift of gold was nothing in comparison to that great gift – but it was symbolic of it. There was no way Bishop Nicholas was going to fail in giving such a gift.
So, in the dark of night, Nicholas put on his long red cloak trimmed in white fur – that was what Bishops wore then – and he tucked in his long white beard and set off with his hand in his pocket around a small bag of gold. It wasn’t much but it was just enough to solve this family’s problem.
Now, over time, as the story has been told, it has never been made clear if it was a bag of gold or a ball of gold. And it has never been made clear how it was delivered the way that it was. We just know that somehow the gold ended up in the toe of the stocking of the girl who would have been sold into slavery.
Somehow Nicholas delivered the gift undetected. The man and his family were surprised and very, very happy at their change of fate. But who – they wondered – could have given them such a gift? The man thought about it a long time and could think of no one who would do such a selfless thing. But he vowed in his heart to always be grateful and if he could – some day in some way – he would express his gratitude for the gift if the opportunity ever presented itself.
But remember the man had three daughters. And in a few years when his second daughter came of age, and his condition had not improved, the family once again faced the problem. And as before, word of the man’s plight reached the ears of Bishop Nicholas.
So on another dark of night, he donned his long red cloak with the white fur trim, and, tucking in his long white beard he set off to make an anonymous gift of just what was needed to solve the vexing problem. Again he was successful and, as before, the family rejoiced at their good fortune.
The father of the family, more grateful than ever, hit his knees in prayer to thank God that such a gift could be theirs. Twice the miracle had occurred and it seemed too much to the man to go unacknowledged. He prayed to God that he might know who the silent gift bringer was.
But remember, he had one more daughter coming of age and though the family worked very hard over the next couple of years they did not have the money to solve the issue for the 3rd daughter either. The man knew that God would not allow the miracle to happen twice only to see failure the third time around. He knew that someday in the dark of night an anonymous gift bringer would come. This time, he vowed, he would be ready so that he could give thanks three times over for the generous gifts that had saved his daughters. So by night he kept watch, as he continued to work by day for his family.
Bishop Nicholas knew this man’s situation. He knew he had a third daughter. And he knew what he must do. So, once again, in the dark of a cold winter’s night he donned the bright red cloak with the white fur trim and he tucked in his long white beard and he set off to deliver one more time a life-saving gift in secret.
How did he get it into the house? That has always been a mystery. Some have said he just left it on the porch but others insist it always ended up in the house inside the stocking of the young girl who needed it so desperately. Some say he threw it through a window where it landed in the stocking. And one version of the story says he threw it way up high in the air, up towards the roof line of the house, where it went inside the chimney and down into the stocking below. Regardless of how it happened, the small ball of gold always ended up where it needed to be – inside that stocking.
The man never said for sure how he saw it happen. He was too startled to see the Bishop with the long white beard in the bright red cloak. As he fell to his knees – to thank Bishop Nicholas for his gift – the Bishop swore him to secrecy and asked him not to do anything in return for the gifts of gold.
But the man’s happiness and gratitude knew no limits. He could not contain the secret of his good fortune and he told all he could about the dark of night visits of Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. Over time the story – and others like it spread.
He became known to many people because of these stories. There was the story of the time he saved a city from starvation by the Miracle of the Grain. There was another story of the time he saved three children from being murdered by an evil inn keeper. He was known for protecting women, sailors and for caring for the less fortunate.
Such people were called Saints in those days. He had a way of making things better for desperate people. And when people were in need they would think of Saint Nicholas – no matter where they lived.
The word saint – in some languages – in pronounced “Santa”. And the name Nicholas, is pronounced “Claus”. His name translated in many languages literally sounds like Santa Claus – and that, over time, is the name he has become known by.
So on this Christmas morning, as you check the toe of your stocking and you find an orange think of the Bishop’s gold – and what that anonymous gift symbolized then and what it symbolizes now. Every gift, whether given or received, is a gift of love. No matter how great, no matter how small.
That is the story behind the legend of Santa, a legend we celebrate this Christmas – and every Christmas.