The True Story of Santa Claus

Based on articles by Rev. H. J. Heagney. Litt. D.; Norman Griffin; Fr. Frances Weiser, S.J.,
Introduction and Compilation by Pauly Fongemie


There are several Saint Nicholases, two of whom, found in many a Saints' dictionary is actually the same Saint, that of St. Nicholas of Bari and Myra, because he was given the first name last, since his relics are reposed there, and the second name comes from his Bishopric see in Asia Minor. He is our subject here. But before we present the true story of "Santa Claus" let us list some of the other Saint Nicholases: St. Nicholas of Flüe, Patron of Switzerland; St. Nicholas of Tolentino; and St. Nicholas I, Pope in the 9th century.  St. Nicholas, of Myra or Bari is venerated in both the Latin and Greek calendar of Saints on December 6. He belongs to the fourth century, suffering under the persecution of Christians waged by the Roman emperor, Diocletian, and is believed to have worked a miracle in restoring three kidnapped children who had been dismembered when he was the Bishop of Myra. Thus is derived his patronage of children. The giving of gifts in honor of the Saint became a tradition through an act of generosity in another matter as you will read below.


Who is Santa Claus? Did he ever live on this earth like other folk? Was he a real person? Yes; Saint Nicholas, whose feast day is observed by the Church on December sixth, is the great and good Saint who first acted the part of Santa Claus. How it happened is a real Christmas story of very long ago.

It was the night before Christmas in the great castle of a famous nobleman. No lights shone in the mansion and no fires burned on the hearths in the lofty rooms. All was dark and cold and desolate. The owner of the castle sat before the empty fireplace in the dining hall, his head sunk in his hands. Upstairs, his three young daughters had gone supperless to bed.

Despite the fine stone palace in which they lived and the high rank to which they belonged, the nobleman and his children were desperately poor. His entire fortune had been swept away some time ago. The nobleman's thoughts were centered upon his children rather than himself.

"What will become of my three poor little girls?" he said to himself sadly. And, indeed, the future seemed hopeless. Unable to work and with no means to support them, they had nothing to look forward to. His pride would not permit him to beg the help of the other nobles and he realized that the worldly lords and ladies of his station in society would consider his family disgraced because they were no longer wealthy.

Lost in his gloomy meditations, the nobleman remained in his chair while the hours slipped by, unheeded. Outside the streets grew deserted and silent. Everybody had gone home. Finally, his head sank on his chest and he fell asleep.

Suddenly he was awakened at midnight by a strange sound. Someone had hurled something down the chimney. The mysterious package lay on the empty hearth before him. He jumped up and looked wildly around. When he discovered the parcel he was afraid to open it at first. Who could tell what it might contain or what enemy might have sent it rolling down in that queer manner!

After a while his curiosity overcame his fright and he cautiously reached out and picked up the object. It was a large ball, securely tied. It was heavy and gave out a chinking sound when he handled it. Quickly he untied the string and emptied the contents of the ball. Imagine his astonishment and delight when he saw a pile of gold pieces!

For a long time the nobleman wondered who could have done such a kind deed to him and his daughters. But he was unable to discover the identity of the unknown benefactor. The months sped by and after a while the nobleman gave up all hopes of solving the mystery. In the meantime his eldest daughter had married and he had been able to provide her with a suitable dowry from the ball of gold.

Again it was Christmas Eve and the nobleman had come once more to the end of his money. His daughter's marriage had taken the greater portion of the mysterious gift and now he was faced with the same hopeless prospects as before. Again he remained before the cheerless, empty fireplace until sleep overcame him.

Then a remarkable thing took place. Exactly at the stroke of midnight another Christmas parcel was thrown through the chimney and landed on the hearth. The nobleman jumped up, wide awake, and picked it out of the ashes. He could hardly believe his senses when he found that it was another ball of gold pieces.

He rubbed his eyes as if he were still dreaming. But no, there could be no mistake. Here was another small fortune, coming to him out of the sky on Christmas Eve.

"Who among all the people I know can be such a real friend in need?" he wondered. "Why does he perform this kind act at Christmas time and in such a secret way? Whoever he may be, God bless him and keep him!"

This time the count made careful inquiries and discovered that he was not the only person who shared the charity of the unknown benefactor. Many other people who needed help, especially the little children of the poor, had received mysterious presents while they were asleep on Christmas Eve. But nobody knew who it was that remembered them so generously.

"He must be a Saint or an Angel from Heaven!" they exclaimed.

The following Christmas the nobleman again sat before the empty hearth in the castle dining hall but this time he did not fall asleep. He was determined to discover who the mysterious benefactor really was. When the midnight hour drew near, he was trembling with excitement.

He was not disappointed. With a loud thump another heavy ball of gold came down the chimney. He did not wait to pick it up but ran as fast as he could out into the street. He was just in time to see a shadowy figure climbing down the wall of the castle. He shouted to the stranger to stop but he leaped to the earth and darted through the rear gate. The nobleman had no intention of giving up so easily. He hurried after the disappearing form at full speed. Down the street and around a corner he rushed, calling at the top of his lungs.

Suddenly the figure darted into a doorway but his pursuer made a final plunge and grasped him by one foot. The mystery was solved at last He had captured the unknown!

"Bishop Nicholas!" exclaimed the nobleman, falling on his knees. "So, it was you. I might have guessed it could be none other. How can I ever thank you?"

"Say no more, my dear son," said the Saintly bishop, who was overcome with confusion because his good deed had been discovered. "Only promise me one thing."

" Anything, anything, good Father Nicholas," said the nobleman, while tears of happiness and gratitude flowed down his cheeks.

"Promise me on your honor never to reveal what you have found out tonight."

The nobleman gave his word that he would not tell but curiosity made him ask Saint Nicholas what prompted him to perform his secret acts of generosity.

"Tomorrow is the Birthday of the Lord," replied Saint Nicholas.  Accept the gold as a gift for His sake, Who for our sakes became poor."

For many years Saint Nicholas continued his Christmas Eve custom, and not until after he had died and gone to Heaven was the secret revealed. Is it any wonder that he has come to be looked upon as "Santa Claus," who is the symbol of Christmas giving and the Christmas spirit? As the Patron Saint of Children, Saint Nicholas has always been and always will be loved by countless little folks everywhere.

Even as a child Saint Nicholas showed every indication of his future Saintliness and nobility. He was the son of wealthy parents, who brought him up to love and serve God. He was only a youth when they died and left him to manage a large fortune. From the beginning he devoted it to the poor, seeking out those who most needed help.

His good deeds won him renown far and near but his humility was as great as his charity. He shunned popular notice and performed his works of mercy in secret. In spite of himself, he was recognized even in lifetime as a Saint and was appointed bishop of his diocese.

Saint Nicholas had a special love for the small ones of his flock, who in turn loved him dearly. His great love of the Divine Babe of Bethlehem inspired them with a like devotion. He looked upon his wealth as a gift from God, freely bestowed upon him to be used for others rather than himself. His example has come to us through the ages as the perfect model of Christmas giving. His gifts were made for the sweet sake of the infant Savior Who came down from Heaven on Christmas morn to bestow upon us the priceless gift of Himself.

Based on a chapter in the book, RELIGIOUS CUSTOMS, by Fr. Weiser, S.J.
Available from TAN Books.

The figure of "Santa Claus" is not Saint Nicholas in disguise as some think. This is what happened:
When the Dutch came to America and established the colony of New Amsterdam, their children enjoyed the traditional "visit of St. Nicholas" on December 6, for the Dutch had kept this ancient Catholic custom even after the Protestant Revolution. Then, when England founded the colony of New York in the same territory, the kindly figure of Sinter Klaas (pronounced like Santa Claus) soon aroused the desire among the English children of having such a heavenly visitor come to their own homes, too.

       The English settlers were glad and willing to comply with the anxious wish of their children. However, the figure of a Catholic Saint and bishop was not acceptable in their eyes, especially since many of them were Presbyterians, to whom a "bishop" was repugnant. Also, they did not celebrate the feasts of Saints according to the ancient Catholic calendar.

       The dilemma was solved by transferring the visit of the mysterious man whom the Dutch called Santa Claus from December 6 to Christmas, and by introducing a radical change in the figure itself. It was not merely a "disguise," but the ancient Saint was completely replaced by an entirely different character. Some clever mind invented this substitution in the eighteenth century.
   Behind the name Santa Claus no longer stands the traditional figure of St. Nicholas, but the pagan Germanic god Thor (after whom Thursday is named). To show the origin of the modern Santa Claus tale, let us give some details about the god Thor from ancient Germanic mythology:
      Thor was the god of the peasants and the common people. He was represented as an elderly man, jovial and friendly, of heavy build, with a long white beard. His element was fire, his color red. The rumble and roar of thunder were said to be caused by the rolling of his chariot, for he alone among the gods never rode on horseback, but drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats (called Cracker and Gnasher). He was fighting the giants of ice and snow, and thus became the Yule-god. He was said to live in the "Northland," where he had his palace among the icebergs. The pagans considered him as the cheerful and friendly god, never harming humans, but rather helping and protecting them. The fireplace in every home was especially sacred to him, and he was said to come down through the chimney into his element, the fire. (See H. A. Guerber, Myths of Northern Lands, Vol. I, p. 61ff., New York, 1895.)

      Here, then, is the true origin of our "Santa Claus." It certainly was a stroke of genius that produced such a charming and attractive figure for our children from the withered pages of pagan mythology. With the Christian Saint, however, whose name he still bears, this Santa Claus has really nothing to do. To be honest and historically correct, we would rather have to call him "Father Thor," or some such name.

      Perhaps this will make it clear to parents why it is so difficult to explain "Santa Claus" as St. Nicholas. There is no basis for such an explanation; the two figures are entirely different.

   Considering the historical background, it might even seem better not to tell the children at all that "Santa Claus" is another name of St. Nicholas. Should we not rather let them consider St. Nicholas their Patron Saint (December 6) and Santa Claus, the delivery man of presents (December 24), as two completely unrelated figures, as they really are?

       The fairy tale of Santa Claus will not be abolished easily, despite the efforts of well-meaning people. Nor does it seem necessary. Children do like fairy tales, and Santa Claus is one of the most charming of them. Catholic parents might use it without harm, provided they apply some safeguards to avoid an undue over stressing of the Santa Claus figure. Perhaps the following suggestions might help:

      Keep the Santa tale in its simple, appealing form and shun the corruptions introduced by commercial managers, like Santason, Mrs. Santa Claus and similar repulsive features. Never allow the figure of Santa Claus to dominate the child's mind. The Child Jesus must be the main figure in all his Christmas thinking. Picture to him Santa as merely a servant and delivery man, delightful but not very important. A mother had explained this to her children. One day she pointed out to them how Santa Claus was to be seen in every department store and how he drew so much attention to himself. The children found it highly amusing that this delivery servant of God should try to make himself the center of the celebration. "He is a little dumb, isn't he?" said the girl, "but Jesus likes him and we like him, too."

      Do not let your children present their wishes to Santa. If you want them to write down what they desire, let them write to the Child Jesus, according to the old Catholic custom. Santa does not give the presents; he only delivers what the Lord sends.

      The above suggestions will also help to lessen the "shock" when the children find out that "there is no Santa." As one mother did when her little boy came full of doubts and asked her if there really was a Santa Claus, such a question should always be answered in truth-----no matter how small the child is.

       "Of course not," said the mother quietly, "that's only a story for very small children. You are a big boy now, so you understand how it really is. Our dear Lord does not need a delivery man. He has already given you somebody who loves you very much and who is happy to give you the Christmas presents in His Name. Do you know who these persons are?"

       The child thought for a moment, then he said, "Daddy and Mother?"

"Yes, my dear," answered she, "and would you not rather that Father and I give you the presents? We love you more than Santa Claus does."

       "Why didn't you tell me that before?"

      "Because it is nice for little children to believe in Santa. Aren't you glad you did?"

      Again the boy thought for a minute. "Yes, it was nice," he said finally. Then he added, "But it's much nicer now."

      Not every case can be handled exactly this way, of course. There are various ways of doing it. However, by following the general idea, parents will have no trouble in setting their children straight about the Santa tale when the right moment comes. The descriptions of great disappointment and psychological conflicts we often read about apply only to families where the parents have misled their own children by allowing Santa to take the central place instead of Christ, whose birthday is the only reason for the whole feast.

In the web master's case she did not tell her children about Santa Claus except to explain briefly how the legend came to be and who Saint Nicholas really is. Our sons had no problems adjusting as there was none to be done. I did tell them not to "spoil" things for those children whose parents did otherwise, and they never did.