Modern St. Nicholas with children

St. Nicholas and Santa Claus

Santa Claus versus Saint Nicholas: Gifts Earned versus Gifts Freely Given

As I wash breakfast dishes on a chilly morning, the Jackson 5’s “You Better Watch Out” blares from Alexa’s speakers:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

With an energetic beat, the holiday classic song reminds children to be on their best behavior as Santa Claus brings gifts only to “good” boys and girls. The next part of the song follows,

He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

A well-known motif in movies, TV shows, and books, Santa Claus and the list he “checks twice” means that unwanted behaviors will be documented.

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

“You Better Watch Out” is a lighthearted tune with a sobering message: only “good” children receive gifts.

Santa Claus, commonly portrayed as a jolly old man—with a white beard, a red suit, and a black sack—carries toys to all “good” little boys and girls that “believe” in him. Such a portrayal, however, is a far cry from his namesake Nicholas, whose generosity inspired by Jesus offers a glimpse into the real meaning of Christmas.

Nicholas was born in the third century in Asia Minor. After his parents died at an early age, he used his inheritance to sell his earthly possessions and give to the poor, obeying Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:21. “Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.” While the historical record is silent on specific details, Nicholas was bishop of Myra in the 4th century. As a bishop, he was known for “generosity to those in need, his love for children, and concern for sailors and ships.”

A well-known story is one where St. Nicholas “secretly threw bags of gold down a chimney in order to help a poor family’s daughters be able to marry rather than be sold into slavery.” The coins landed into stockings hung out to dry by the fire. Echoing this legend, children in the western world hang Christmas stockings by the fire in hopes of receiving gifts from St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas gave freely, without behavioral expectations of the recipients. In contrast, Santa Claus is an old man who comes into town once a year, giving gifts to “nice,” not “naughty,” children. The modern depiction of Santa Claus is one where children are told to be “good.” St. Nicholas demonstrated love and compassion to all God’s children, as Jesus did.

Jesus’ gifts of grace and salvation are not offered to only those who are good but to those in need. He came to earth as a baby, born of the virgin Mary, offering temporary physical relief and everlasting spiritual hope. No one can ever live a perfect life completely free of sin. No one can be good enough (Rom 3:23). Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God the Father and died as the Perfect Sacrifice, to atone for the sins of the world (Hebrew 10:8-10). Jesus offers the free gift of salvation to all who believe and recognize their broken state (Romans 6).

St. Nicholas, following in Jesus’ footsteps gave without “making a list and checking it twice.” Gifts freely given.

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