How To Separate
St. Nicholas From Commercial Hype

Opinion / Analysis by Kathleen Howley

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But he's much more than the mythical figure described in the Christmas editorial that appeared in the New York Sun more than a century ago. In response to a question by eight-year-old Virginia Hanlon, a New York Sun editor wrote, ''How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!''

It's true that it would be a dreary world without old St. Nick. But Francis Church, the Sun editor, missed the most important point: there really is a Santa Claus. It has nothing to do with fairies or romance, and everything to do with child-like faith. Santa Claus, a derivative of the Dutch name, Sant Nikolaus, or St. Nicholas, exists today as surely as you and I exist. Catholics invoke his intercession in the Litany of Saints. Santa Claus is on the list, after St. Martin.

We even have a picture of the real St. Nick. A famous fifteenth-century icon depicts him as a rotund bishop with a white beard. As befits his office, he is dressed in ecclesiastical red, a color meant to evoke memories of the martyrs.

And, although the great saint now lives forever with God in heaven, we also know where his earthly remains are buried. In 1087 Italian soldiers stole the saint's body from Myra, Asia Minor, and carried it to a church in southern Italy, where it rests to this day.

St. Nicholas, a 4th-century Catholic bishop, was known far and wide for his charity and his Christian zeal. In one legend, St. Nicholas anonymously threw a bag of gold into the open window of a young woman who couldn't marry because she didn't have a dowry. In another legend, he saved three children from death. One item reported as fact, not legend, is that St. Nick was the first to initiate programs to teach mentally handicapped children.

Today, more than 2,000 churches are dedicated to St. Nicholas in France and Germany, and about 400 in England. He's honored as the patron saint of Russia, Greece, Sicily, and the Lorraine region of France. In addition, he's known as the patron saint of children and brides. His feast day is celebrated by Roman Catholics on December 6. Devotions to St. Nicholas were brought to America by Dutch settlers in Colonial days. The saint became airborne in 1866 when cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic and Republican symbols of a donkey and an elephant, drew a carton for Harper's Weekly magazine depicting St. Nick as a jolly Dutch farmer who rode through the sky in a wagon, dropping presents down chimneys.

More than 150 years ago Clement Clarke Moore penned his famous poem, originally titled ''A Visit from St. Nicholas.'' Today, most of us know it as ''The Night Before Christmas.''

''The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there,'' he wrote.

How did we go from the true image of a generous saint to the false icon of a business tycoon? We have the multi-million-dollar advertisement industry to thank, for that. The secular Santa has become the patron saint of merchandizing and materialism. Indeed, the toy moguls are happy, but the real St. Nick wouldn't want it that way.

Be wary of what you tell kids about Santa Claus. Be worthy of their ''child-like faith.'' Instead of compiling a demand list for a secular Santa, have them write a letter or a prayer to the real Santa Claus. It's an opportunity for them to learn about intercessory prayer. And, if you're wondering how you're going to pay for all those toys, you could get on your knees and join them.

On Christmas morning, let your children know that the presents under the tree are meant to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. Tell them about St. Nicholas, and how he loved to bring smiles to the faces of children. It's just as easy to tell the truth about St. Nick as it is to indulge ourselves by weaving secular tales. When it comes to Santa, truth is better than fiction.

Kids know that what they see on TV is make-believe, like Big Bird. They depend upon us to relate the story of Santa Claus in a way that is based, if only loosely, on the facts.

There is something drastically wrong with the fact that a secularized version of Santa has become more popular than Jesus. Many kids look forward to his ''coming down the chimney'' more than they look forward to the celebration of the birth of Jesus -- the real reason for the season. It's our fault, not the kids, because if we spoke the truth about the real St. Nick in the same glowing way we speak untruths about the Santa invented by Madison Avenue, maybe kids would be excited about Jesus, too. They might even decide to dedicate their lives to Him-- just as Saint Nicholas did.