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The Real Saint Nick

American cultural icon every December, or beloved Christian pastor in southern Turkey  in the 4th. century?

American cultural icon every December, dangerous pagan tradition, or Christian pastor in southern Turkey in the 4th. century who exemplified a love for the poor by following the way of Jesus?

Growing up as a little kid, my mother left a big chocolate chip cookie out on a plate in front of the living room fireplace one Christmas Eve. When I woke up the next morning, the cookie was half-eaten, with crumbs unmistakably left on the plate.

When I came to having personal faith in Christ in high school, I looked back on the childlike belief in Santa Claus as a type of feel-good fairly tale. Jesus was the “real thing” while this jolly “Saint Nick” figure was simply a product of cultural imagination… merely an urban legend.

It must have been my dad who ate part of that cookie.

In the contemporary era of the so-called “War on Christmas,” Christians have faced the awkward challenge of what to do with “Saint Nick.” Secularists for years had suggested that old “Saint Nick” was simply a pious invention having no relevant historical basis. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, however, have argued that Saint Nicholas was indeed a real historical figure from the 4th century, and so only vaguely related to the “ho-ho-ho” North Pole type glamorized by the old 1931 Coca-Cola ads. Evangelical Protestants, who tend to frown upon the veneration of saints, have sought to distance themselves somehow from Saint Nick in different ways, some even dismissing the history of the original figure as being of pagan origin (just as some secularists still do). Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons why the ancient Saint Nicholas evolved into the jolly guy with an obesity problem driving a bunch reindeer around in a sleigh filled with merchandise from Target and J.C Penny’s is because the majority of American Christians since the 19th century have been reluctant to associate with the practice of venerating dead saints.

Various attempts have been made in recent years to rehabilitate the true history of the original Saint Nicholas and get at what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” Campbell University’s Adam C. English has probably done the most thorough research into Saint Nicholas to give us the detailed scoop. In The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, argues that the evidence shows that actually the original “Saint Nicholas of Myra” did come from 4th. century southern Turkey, serving as a Christian pastor and a popular bishop who advocated for the poor. Beyond that, the exact details get a bit murky.
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