I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. Romans 1:16 NIV

His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
~ "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore (1823)

My dad used to take my sisters and me down to Miller & Rhodes for a visit with the "Real Santa Claus." The trip made for some of my favorite childhood memories. This Santa wasn't some ordinary mall Santa. The "Real Santa" arrived via reindeer-pulled sleigh and -- you bet – slid down a chimney. His full, white beard was genuine, and his beautiful friend, the Snow Queen, glittered as she greeted each awe-struck child.

But the real clincher occurred when, after waiting for hours in a sea of overexcited children, Santa called my siblings and me by name to join him on his big, comfy lap.

Of course, come adulthood, I discovered the beloved "Real Santa" was actually a local man with a local legacy -- a kind-hearted, Christian grandfather who delighted in bringing joy to children like me. (And, if you're wondering, the friendly Snow Queen was wired so "Santa" could hear our names as we approached).

I suppose we all have to step off the Polar Express at some point and accept that Santa is just a mythological figure. Or is he? As it turns out, there really was a Santa Claus. He went by the less marketable title Bishop Nicholas of Myra. While he never wore a red suit, smoked a pipe, or slid down chimneys, his story actually has a lot to do with the true meaning of Christmas.

Stories of the Real St. Nick

Researching the life of St. Nicholas presents a challenge – he seems destined to be obscured by legend, even in the history books. But even if the facts are a bit murky, there are some things we know with relative certainty.

We first encounter Nicholas as a compassionate young man in 4th century Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Both of his parents had passed away, leaving the grief-stricken youth a substantial inheritance. Nicholas decided the money would go to charity.

It wasn't long after this decision that he encountered a family in need. The father had lost his daughters' dowries, and in those days this meant the three women had no hope for marriage. As a last resort, the father decided to sell them into prostitution.

When Nicholas heard of the family's plight, and the father's horrific solution, he did something very much in the spirit of Santa Claus: He secretly visited their home by night, throwing a bag of gold coins through the family's window. He repeated his covert act of charity three times, resulting in the marriages of all three sisters. During his third visit, the father discovered his identity and expressed deep gratitude for his kindness.

St. Nicholas went on to assist many others, often anonymously. His generous and creative commitment to the needy gave rise to many unconfirmed legends and miracles over the centuries, but one fact is known for certain: his virtue resulted in his appointment as Bishop of Myra.

Defender of the Faith

Though less magical sounding, Nicholas' role as Bishop gives us even greater reason to associate this Saint with Christmas.

That's because Nicholas' life unfolded during a pivotal era of Christendom. After years of terrible persecution, the rise of Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. brought legal acceptance of Christianity. Legend has it that Bishop Nicholas was among the many Christians who endured imprisonment and torture for the faith until Constantine freed him.