I am a grown woman with grown and almost-grown children, and I still remember the absolute thrill of waking up Christmas morning and finding an empty cookie plate on our hearth, complete with crumbs and a thank you note from Santa himself. I don’t even remember the gifts I got that year, but the excitement of knowing Santa had come is something I’ve never forgotten. 

When I had kids of my own, I wanted to be sure they enjoyed the same kind of fun and magic at Christmas. And that meant a full-blown Santa experience. We wrote him letters, visited him at the mall, and even tracked his Christmas Eve journey using the NORAD Santa Tracker.

Still, as much as I wanted my children to experience Santa, it was even more important to me that they experience Jesus and the real meaning of Christmas.

Fortunately, because “Santa Claus” was a real person who lived his life for Christ, we could do both.

Our modern culture has reduced Santa Claus to nothing more than a sleigh-driving, list-checking, wish-granting elf whose association with the Christian faith is vague at best. But the truth is, Santa is more than just a prominent player in the holiday season. Santa Claus is, in fact, Saint Nicholas, a historical figure whose real-life story is far more interesting than anything ever created for holiday movies, TV shows, and carols.

Born in the third century to wealthy Christian parents, the orphaned Nicholas was raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara. That same uncle later ordained Nicholas a priest and eventually the Bishop of Myra, in what is modern-day Turkey. To help kids learn the story of Saint Nicholas, there are several lovely children’s books (try this one or this one) about this great saint.

Even Veggie Tales offers a version of his story with their characteristic charm and humor. 

Many of our modern Santa traditions come from actual stories about the life of Saint Nicholas.

For example, the tradition of hanging out stockings likely comes from a story about the time Nicholas saved some young women from a life of prostitution (for the kids’ version I just say “unpleasant working conditions”). 

The story goes that when a poor man in Myra could not afford a dowry for his daughters, it looked like the girls would be forced into a life of prostitution. To save them, Nicholas threw sacks of gold from his own inheritance into the window of the poor family’s home, providing the daughters with the money they needed for their dowries. 

The bags of gold are said to have landed in stockings or shoes. This is also where some cultures get the tradition of putting shoes out on December 5, the eve of Saint Nicholas’s Feast Day. Children all over the world wake up on December 6 to find their shoes filled with chocolate coins. My children woke up on Saint Nicholas Day every year to find their shoes filled with goodies and a note from Saint Nick (a.k.a. Santa) reminding them about the real gift of Christmas—Jesus Christ. 

For my children, the connection made sense. Saint Nicholas lived his life serving God and helping others (sometimes in secret) and to this day someone (maybe even a jolly man in a red suit) carries on that tradition by secretly bringing gifts to others at Christmas. 

This connection didn’t make the magic of Santa any less magical. It just gave it a deeper meaning.

And when the time came for them to know the truth, the transition was fairly seamless because the important part of the story was true—everything else was just fun and make-believe. So you’re the ones who have been carrying on for Saint Nicholas! Was more of a realization than a letdown. 

There’s no reason that learning the truth about Santa has to be a disappointment. And when it comes to keeping Christ in Christmas, there’s no reason Saint Nicholas can’t be one of parents’ biggest helpers.

Looking for an alternative to Elf on the Shelf? Try the Kindness Elf this year!

Laura Hanby Hudgens

Laura is a junior high teacher and a freelance writer. She lives on a buffalo farm in the Arkansas Ozarks where she enjoys cooking and baking, which is also the key to bringing her busy family together. Her work has appeared on The Washington Post, Huffington, Post, Grown and Flown, Aleteia, ChurchPOP, and elsewhere. Find out more about Laura here.