The legend of Santa Claus is based on the actual St. Nicholas, and all tales of jolly old St. Nick share the same beginning.
Nicholas, born in 280 AD, was orphaned when his parents died in an epidemic. He went to live with his uncle, a Christian bishop. Strong in his faith, the young Nicholas chose to devote his life to serving others. In pursuit of this mission he began giving away his family fortune.
Wait, his what?
Nicholas’ parents were, depending on the version of the story, either wealthy or at least very prosperous. When they died, the boy is said to have inherited quite a lot of money.
Somehow, this detail often gets left out of the Santa story. Think of all the Christmas stories you’ve heard. How many times have they mentioned that Santa was rich?
Our tradition of hanging stockings at Christmas is rooted in the legend of St. Nicholas tossing three bags (or balls) of gold through the window of a poor man’s house to provide a dowry for each of the man’s three daughters. The gold is supposed to have landed in the girls’ shoes or their stockings that were hanging by the fireplace to dry. Nicholas perpetrated this good deed at night in obedience to Matthew 6:1, which warns against performing works of charity in front of others.
Nicholas’ charity became the stuff of legend, and tales spread of a saint who gave money to the poor and helped children (even bringing some back to life through prayer).
All of this was miraculous in the third century. Today, bringing people back to life through prayer is still miraculous. But people giving away enormous sums of money happens every day and we don’t consider it remarkable at all.
In the centuries since St. Nicholas tossed his inherited gold through the poor man’s window, economic growth has created millions of Santas. And we can create more.
An obvious but overlooked lesson in the Santa Claus story is that the one necessary precondition for the existence of Santa Claus is wealth.
Had Nicholas been poor, he’d have had no gold to give away.
(Yes, Santa’s got a brand new bag, and it’s full of money.)
When you think about it, having more than you need for survival is the foundation of all charity. And so the key to stimulating more charitable giving is to create more wealth.
Research on charitable giving bears this out. When the economy grows, charitable giving increases. When it shrinks, charitable giving also shrinks.
In 2021, Americans gave away $484.5 billion. And that’s just in official donations that can be tabulated. It’s doubtful that St. Nicholas could’ve comprehended a sum so large.
But there’s another, even greater, benefit of economic growth. It reduces the need for charity in the first place.
This chart of global hunger vs. GDP per capita shows how economic growth feeds the poor.
This chart of child mortality by level of prosperity shows how economic growth saves children’s lives.
This chart of world GDP during the last two millennia shows the power of growth to lift people out of poverty.
Simply put, economic growth has created millions of Santas who give away billions of dollars a year. And the economy itself has become a sort of super Santa, enriching humanity and keeping children alive on a scale that St. Nicholas would envy.
In “A Christmas Carol,” why isn’t Scrooge poor? Because a poor Scrooge could do nothing for Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. The spirits save Scrooge’s soul, but Scrooge’s wealth saves Tiny Tim’s life.
The stories of St. Nicholas and Scrooge both focus on their hearts. Their desire to help others is central to their transformation into folk heroes. But their charitable acts are made possible by their wealth.
The best way to spread Christmas cheer might well be singing loud for all to hear. But the best way to spread Christmas giving is to make everyone prosperous.