Old St. Nick: An Orthodox look at Santa Claus

Published on Friday, 20 December 2013 21:40 - Written by rBy Rebecca Hoeffner hoeffner@tylerpaper.com

St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle — Christians in East Texas all celebrate the mysterious figure differently.

At St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas is venerated through an icon and celebrated on St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6.

“We explain (to our children) that who we know as Santa Claus was a real person,” said Theophan Alvarez, who attends at St. John. “He was known for his charity: he rescued men who were about to be executed who were innocent. And young women who were going to be sold into slavery without a dowry, he paid their dowry. He gave to people in need.”

According to the History channel’s website, St. Nicholas can be traced back to what is now Turkey, born around 280 A.D.

“Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick,” reads the article. “By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas main- tained a positive reputation.”

In the hymns the Orthodox congregation sings at the Dec. 6 celebration, St. Nicholas is described as a protector of children and sailors, and a prophet of God who could see the future, said John Mikita, priest of the Orthodox church.

Alvarez’s children, who are 1, 4, and 6 years old, get presents from St. Nicholas in a boot they leave by the door on the eve of St. Nicholas Day.

Over time and by mixing St. Nicholas with other stories all around the world, he developed into the American cultural icon of Santa Claus with his flying reindeer.

“We all go to church on St. Nicholas Day, even if it’s a work day,” Alvarez said. “We try to distinguish St. Nicholas from the Santa Claus of popular culture.”

Patrick and Megan Lissner, who attend First Baptist Church, said it gets harder to focus on the historical St. Nicholas when the children get older (They are 5, 3 and 1).

“We tried to not do Santa Claus at all, but when our oldest started hearing about it from other people, she got so excited about it,” Mrs. Lissner said. “Of course we teach them about the real Saint Nicholas and emphasize that Christ is the most important thing about Christmas. But it’s fun, and it teaches them to give and be generous themselves.”