Serious actors diligently research the characters they portray, sometimes hanging out with real people in unusual professions or tiptoeing along the margins of life with those living on the edge.
With some of us playing Santa this time of year, we might as well know a little about the real person we're pretending to be.
St. Nicholas of Myra was about 17 when his parents both died of an epidemic disease in a region we know as Turkey today. Inheriting significant family wealth, he faced real financial decisions as he prepared to become a priest. Nicholas gave away his riches to the poor and signed up for the clergy. By 30, he was ordained a bishop. Folks called him "the boy Bishop" because he was so young for the job.
But it was not his rank that earned St. Nick his legendary distinction. It was his humility. He was quietly generous to those in need. In one situation, he waited until night to secretly deliver three bags of gold to pay for the dowries of three young sisters whose mother had died. As the story goes, the merciful bishop tossed the money into the girls' stockings that were drying by the fire while they slept. The gifts probably came from his inheritance.
Living as a Christian about 300 years after Jesus walked the earth, Nicholas was committed to closely following him, including the instruction to keep your charity a secret. That led to Santa's late night deliveries. Tradition says he helped those starving in famine and once slapped a heretic in the face. The Roman emperor, Diocletian, imprisoned St. Nicholas because he wouldn't deny his belief in Jesus. The saint survived Rome's harsh persecution of Christians and was released when Constantine took the throne and converted to the faith.
Today, in most of the world, children receive gifts on December 6, St. Nicholas' feast day in the Catholic Church. In Holland, Sinterklaas arrives by ship from Spain and rides a horse named Amerigo. In France, he's known as Pere Noel. In Spain, Papa Noel. Russian children call him Grandfather Frost. In the United States, Madison Avenue has repurposed the patron saint of children to become the ultimate pitchman for toy companies, sugary sodas and even sultry undergarments to the suggestive lyrics of "Santa Baby."
As you slip into your long white beard, body suit and red coat, remember your playing a man some people speak to in prayer. It's important we always stay in character. Especially around kids.