published Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Kennedy: Finally, a Santa to believe in

I have a 1960s memory of a second-grade boy who, at about age 7, raised eyebrows in my hometown by climbing into Santa's lap at a Christmas party.

"He's so big," someone said of the boy. I remember my mom, one of the world's most gentle souls, being genuinely scandalized by the long-legged Santa believer.

My, how times have changed.

Today's kids -- at least some of those in my little community -- take Santa with them to middle school.

We were talking about this trend in our Sunday school class last week. What's wrong with stretching a child's age of innocence by a few years, some parents asked? Maybe these older kids are just playing the Santa card with a wink, others speculated.

In some Christian households the rub comes because having that awkward "Santa talk" with your elementary school-aged child strikes at the heart of parent-child trust. "OK, what's next?" a child might reasonably ask, as if Jesus and the Easter Bunny were both standing in the corner with their arms crossed.

But what if parents had real history to fall back on; a scholarly report on the real St. Nicholas of the early 4th century?

And what if our historical St. Nick was actually a benevolent and beloved man of God and who helped preserve Christianity during a particularly vulnerable period in its history?

A new book, "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus," (Baylor University Press, $17) by North Carolina author Adam C. English, paints just such a picture. It gives parents a historical bridge linking St. Nicholas and Jesus -- something many of us have hoped for.

I spoke to English last week in a telephone interview from his office in Buies Creek, N.C., where he is an associate professor of religion at Campbell University. English spent time in Bari, Italy, where St. Nicholas is buried, and studied records of the great man preserved by Catholic friars.

"The story has been so enshrined that the true historical person had been lost in layers of legend," English said. "By the 20th Century, St. Nicholas had become Santa, who lives at the North Pole and has magical elves. ... What?"

English said his study of St. Nicholas shows that he was born in about the year 260 A.D., and spent most of his adult years in southern Turkey in what was then the city of Myra. It's a city visited by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament book of Acts, English said.

Records show that Nicholas became a bishop of the area -- the modern equivalent of a head pastor, English said. He experienced the Conference of Nicaea, an assembly of bishops which unified the beliefs of the Christian faith.

"When Nicholas was born, Christianity was an illegal, minority religion," English said. "By his death, it was the favored religion of the (Roman) Empire."

Stories of Nicholas' good works abound. He once saved three innocent men from beheading, according to church records. Another time he procured grain from ships to save the city of Myra from famine.

There are also written accounts of St. Nicholas secretly leaving small bags of gold to provide dowries for poor women who might otherwise have never been married, English has said. He is portrayed in the church records as a wise and good man.

English thinks most kids would be fascinated to learn about the real St. Nicholas -- he suggests he be introduced to kids as the "first Santa Claus." Most children are OK with the idea that Santa is not an immortal figure, he said.

English said he has chosen to tell his daughter that today's parents like to carry on the tradition of St. Nicholas through gift-giving, inside and outside the home.

"We tell her that parents like to play the part of St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve," he said, "even though it does perhaps rob the season of some of it's magic."

But for people of faith, the story of the real St. Nicholas perhaps lifts a burden from our hearts and allows the reason for the season to shine through; which is all the magic we need.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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