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Recognizing the true St. Nicholas


Why does Santa wear a red suit? It sounds like a children’s riddle, but the answer is that St. Nicholas of Myra was a bishop and, traditionally, bishops wore red robes.

Society has appropriated and fictionalized Nicholas, but he was recognized by the early church for his devotion to God and his leadership in the hostile environment of the pre-Christian Roman Empire. It was men like Nicholas (and Patrick and Valentine) that spread the Good News of the Gospel of Christ in the face of persecution. It was because of their examples that the early church held them as models for us to imitate as disciples of Jesus.

There is a temptation to surrender Nicholas to marketers, to simply let popular culture have him and give up on this historical figure who is believed to have attended the Council of Nicea and had a hand in writing the Nicene Creed -- one of the foundational creeds of the Christian faith.

But instead of conforming to the culture, holding fast to the historical Nicholas gives us the opportunity to transform the world. This cartoonish Santa Claus gives us a starting point to tell of the God who inspired the love and generosity of the historical figure and introduce the nonbeliever to the Christ whom Nicholas revered and served. It gives us an opportunity to bring the Good News of the Gospel to those who have never heard it, just as Nicholas himself did 1,700 years ago.

The early church promoted the study of the lives of the saints to help us understand how to live out God’s command to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The lives of the saints throughout history show us how to live as disciples in an ever-changing world. Their lives show us the nuts and bolts of living as God would have us live in the messiness of the human condition in all its subtleties and nuances.

We have things we can learn from the lives of Nicholas, Patrick, Valentine, and all the other men and women whose acts of charity, courage, and perseverance preserved the words and deeds of Christ for us throughout the millennia.

Santa wears a red suit because Nicholas was a bishop and devoted his life to fulfilling Christ’s commission to make disciples and teach others to obey the commands of our Lord. Merry Christmas.

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