St. Nicholas: ‘Following God’s example’

By Jennifer Miele
Chief Communications Officer

Christmastime can pose a tricky question for many faithful Catholics.

Should we enjoy the story of Santa with our children, or remain focused on what the Bible tells us about the Nativity and birth of Jesus?

Monsignor Raymond E. Riffle, Vicar General, says we really don’t have to choose. While there certainly aren’t Bible stories about a man in a red suit bringing toys to children around the world, Santa presents a wonderful opportunity to teach young people about an important figure in the history of the church – St. Nicholas.

“It’s not bad or wrong to talk about Santa, but it would be very important to tell children where that story came from,” Monsignor Riffle says. “I would recommend sharing the real story of St. Nicholas and how he was motivated to be a giver of gifts and his own wealth, and who he was for people who were less fortunate.” 

St. Nicholas of Myra (located in modern-day Turkey) lost both parents as a young man, and used his inheritance to help the sick and the poor, Monsignor Riffle explains. There are many stories about how he helped the less fortunate and children in need, and even provided dowries for women who did not have them, he adds. 

The generosity of St. Nicholas has influenced stories, music and art in almost every culture around the world. Artistic images often show the saint on cold, wintry nights. Our own Bishop Larry J. Kulick has a passion for the St. Nicholas-inspired art designed by Pipka Ulvilden.

“I think one of my favorite images that Pipka created was from the year 2000, to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of Christ’s birth,” Bishop Kulick says. “You can see St. Nicholas with a bag stuffed full of goodies, the way we are used to seeing him. But this time he is accompanied by the Christ Child on a donkey. It symbolizes that St. Nicholas is united to Christ and that the birth of Christ is the primary focus of the Christmas season. St. Nicholas is depicted in service to Christ.”

St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, and we celebrate his feast day each year on Dec. 6 – often with faithful children leaving their shoes out at night with hopes of discovering candy or small gifts inside when they wake.

With the history and imagery of St. Nicholas in mind, connections to the Santa Claus story that would emerge from his life are clear.

“The life of St. Nicholas was such an ingrained history among the faithful that, even after the Great Reformation, when veneration of saints was discouraged, St. Nick still had a good reputation,” Monsignor Riffle says. “This was especially true in Holland, where he was called Sinterklaas, the shortened Dutch form of St. Nicholas.”

Across the world, the story of St. Nicholas transformed into legends similar to Santa Claus, including Christkindl (meaning “Christ child”) in Switzerland, Germany and other northern European countries, Father Christmas in England, or La Befana in Italy, Monsignor Riffle explains. 

By 1823, these stories had become such a force that American poet Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nick” – more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” – solidifying the idea of Santa we see today.

Monsignor Riffle says today’s Santa provides an important segue.

“We can reframe Santa as someone not apart from Jesus, but in imitation of Jesus,” he says. “He was someone who was doing what God did. God gave His first, most important, best gift: His son. St. Nick followed that example.”

He also encourages parents to teach children how to follow in the example of St. Nicholas by giving to others. 

“Have them go out with you to shop for a person in need,” he says. “We want to pass on the idea that, although it’s nice to get gifts at Christmas, the whole reality of our Christian belief is that we are to share what we have and gift it to each other, and particularly to those who are less fortunate.”

The Diocese of Greensburg provides many opportunities for giving during the Christmas season, including the annual Angel Tree at Our Lady of Grace Parish in Greensburg, which helps parishioners buy gifts for needy children, or during the Breakfast with St. Nicholas at St. Agnes Parish in North Huntingdon. This annual event includes a visitation with a person portraying St. Nicholas, speaking to children about his life, taking pictures with them and – of course – sharing a gift. The event also collects donations for the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg baby closet, to support mothers in need.

There are activities in support of organizations such as the Norwin Area Meals on Wheels, and children can receive Christmas stories and other books of our faith from the Legion of Mary.

Mary Blythe, Director of Faith Formation at St. Agnes Parish, says the event provides an important opportunity to place Christmastime within the framework of our faith.

“It’s a wonderful way to kick off Advent and the Christmas season because we are placing the foundation with God,” Blythe says.

If you would like to see more of the artwork created by Pipka Ulvilden, visit


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