One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord Your God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”—Mark 12:28-31
Every year as our children were growing up, we would take them shopping to fill boxes to send to children around the world through Operation Christmas Child. One morning, as I was packing up the boxes, our oldest son—a sage of about 5 years old—asked me a very pointed question: “Mommy, if there’s a Santa Claus, why do we have to buy presents for poor children?”
I paused, carefully considering my answer. “Why do you think?”
“Because Santa isn’t real?” he responded. So we talked. Let’s just say the ensuing discussion made my son unpopular among parents for whose children he spoiled the Christmas myth.
But it’s not all myth. Santa Claus is a modern-day depiction of a godly and generous third-century Turkish bishop named Nicholas. Orphaned as a child when his wealthy parents died in an epidemic, Nicholas held on his parents’ Christian faith but not their money.
The story has it that Nicholas came to the rescue of a merchant who lost his fortune to pirates, which would leave his grown daughters prey to slavery or prostitution because they lacked a dowry. Nicholas left two sacks of gold for the first two daughters but was caught by the merchant when he left the third for the last daughter. He humbly instructed the merchant to give all thanks to God and to keep his benevolence a secret till his passing. After Nicholas died, stories poured out of his generosity.
But Nicholas wasn’t generous for the sake of generosity. He was generous for the sake of Christ, whom he loved and whose gospel he fearlessly defended. Imprisoned at one point for his faith, Nicholas was part of the council that created the first clear Christian doctrine known as the Nicene Creed. He also was believed to have participated in the destruction of pagan temples.
No, he didn’t wear a red suit, live at the North Pole and have a toy workshop staffed by elves. No, he didn’t drop down chimneys and eat cookies that contributed to his trademark obesity. No, he didn’t ride a sleigh led by a team of reindeer.
Nicholas was a simple man who simply gave gifts because he had been given the greatest gift of all—the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, the ultimate manifestation of love.
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.—1 John 4:9
We give generously at Christmas because we have generously received. We give because we love and are loved. Nicholas lived to demonstrate and point others to God’s love. This is the message of Christmas. May Nicholas’ legacy live on, and may we share his heart for Christ.