(Updated for 2010, here is a column first published in 2003) 

With the Polar Express again riding through the Christmas season, most children are aware that grownups want them to believe in Santa Claus. However, many children might be surprised to know that there was once a real Saint Nick and that he was about more than toys, magic and bells you can hear. In addition to being generous, the jolly fellow could easily be considered the patron saint of purity.

Saint Nicholas lived early in the fourth century in what is now Turkey. Orphaned as a young boy, he inherited substantial financial means from his parents. He used this endowment to benefit others, especially children. Deeply religious, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra in Turkey and played an important leadership role in the church. Called the Wonderworker, he was well known for his generosity to children, hence his association with the legend of Santa Claus. The story of a benevolent soul giving gifts to children is a part of many cultures with many names. Saint Nick as another name for Santa Claus persists to this day.

Saint Nicholas is also a patron saint of virgins. In the Catholic tradition, a patron saint is one who prays to God on behalf of a petitioner. So, if one wants to remain chaste, one may pray to Saint Nicholas who will then lift up the petitioner in spiritual prayer to God. As an aside, his patronage may explain at least one of the criteria for being in either the naughty or nice category when Saint Nick checks and rechecks his list. But I digress. There is more to this story.

Legend has it that Saint Nicholas became aware of a desperately poor parishioner having three daughters with no dowry to recommend them for marriage. The father had planned to sell them into prostitution to provide some means of support. By night, Saint Nicholas secretly brought bags of gold on three separate occasions to the man's home. These generous visitations allowed the three daughters to have sufficient means to avoid whoredom and later strike a marriage covenant. On the third visit to deliver the gift, Nicholas was caught in the act of generosity by the grateful father.

Many make the Santa Claus-like association of this story to Saint Nicholas the gift giver. I see an additional angle. For reasons that often involve money, women today have few benefactors, few Saint Nicks. Bob Dylan sang truly two decades ago that today's culture seems to promote "old men turning young daughters into whores." A look at any magazine rack will tell you that there is a market for flesh and the demographic is predominantly male, ages 12 and up. According to the website for the documentary, The Price of Pleasure, porn is a 13 billion dollar a year enterprise in the US. That is a lot of gold being used to debase women rather than enhance their virtue.

Blending traditional gender roles has been little help here. Women today are not, nor should they be, as helpless as those three girls aided by Saint Nicholas. However, girls gone wild with sexual freedom most often leads to exploitation by men. I doubt we would see as much skin if there were no gawking male purchasers.

Degrading to both men and women, graphic sexuality, even the somewhat scaled down prime time variety, contributes to the overall commodification of sex. Viewed through the eyes of a pornographer, sex is commerce and sexual purity is restraint of trade.

We need Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker today. We need his gifts of chastity and modesty. We need more respecters of purity and fewer of those who buy and sell innocence.