Christmas Eve 2014 The Little Known Back Story of Santa Claus


I’ve realized over the years that at this Christmas eve service, we always have a rather rambunctious crowd, in particular, we have bunch of excited children (Slide) who, quite understandably, can’t wait for Christmas to get here.  It’s a tough crowd to try and give a serious Christmas sermon to, and so it seems better to direct my sermon to a somewhat younger audience, and perhaps to the child within us all.

With that in mind, I’ve always found it puzzling why people aren’t more curious about the back story of this guy: (Slide.)  He is so beloved — we see his face pretty much everywhere we go at this time of year.  Children in particular love him.   He is purported to travel around the world in a sled pulled by flying reindeer, delivering presents to the children of the world.  All of which is pretty amazing, leading to all kinds of questions, but the one that I think is most relevant tonight is to ask how did Santa end up being such a loving guy?  I mean he devotes himself to bringing happiness to so many children, none of whom are in his actual family, though, I’m sure if we asked him, Santa would say we all are his family — that all of us truly are family together if we just could see things right.

And the joy.  How did he get to be such a person so full of joy?

I mean there has got to be a back story, right?  How come People magazine gives us more than we want to know about the Kardashians and as far as I know, they’ve never run a feature story about good old Santa.

Well, there are a bunch of stories that get passed around in certain circles regarding how Santa came to be Santa, but I want to tell you the one that seems most believable to me, and I hope you’ll listen carefully, so you’ll better appreciate this extraordinary guy who gives himself so selflessly tonight and, for that matter, the entire year, because to pull off an operation on this scale requires an unbelievable amount of preparation.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: before Santa was known as “Santa” (slide) he went by the name of Arnold Wolfheimer.   He was born into a poor family on the south side of Chicago.  (Slide.) This is a picture of Arnold as a boy — that’s Arnold on the right — his little brother Sammy is on the left.   It was the time of the Great Depression, which meant that a whole lot of people were really poor and had to scrape every nickel together to be able to put food on their supper table.  (Slide) This is a picture of Arnold’s grandfather — a dear sweet man that Arnold loved dearly — selling apples on the street to help support the family.

The family didn’t live in Chicago for very long because there was no work there, so the family had to move when Arnold’s father lost his job, and so they had to go where he had some hope of finding work.  They didn’t have a car, so they would either have to hitch a ride or take a bus.  (Slide) This is a picture of the family waiting for bus.

After they left Chicago, Arnold would never see his grandfather again.  In the years that followed. Arnold’s family barely stayed in one place long enough to call it “home.”   Home was simply wherever his family was, and that kept changing.  There were nights when there was nothing for supper.  At Christmas time, Arnold and his brother Sammy would consider themselves fortunate if there parents could manage to put a ham on the table, (slide) and to find an orange in their stocking, because generally speaking oranges simply cost too much, having to be shipped all the way from Florida.

In Arnold’s memory, however these weren’t unhappy years.  They had each other, and that was the most important thing.   The truly unhappy years came later when Arnold and Sammy were teenagers, and his parents got sick and couldn’t work to support them, so now Arnold had to go looking for work, and usually this took him away from his family. (Slide.) This is a picture of Arnold from those years — it’s also the time when Arnold got used to carrying things around in a big bag.     He’d send money back to his family when he could, but it was never enough.  He felt very, very lonesome.

And then when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, Arnold got a letter from his brother Sammy telling him that his parents had both died, and that Sammy himself had gotten caught stealing some food, and so he was in a reformatory —  which was kind of like jail for kids.

So Arnold felt just as bad as could be.  He felt like he’d let his family down, which, of course he hadn’t, but that’s how he felt.

At that point Arnold just sort of fell apart.   For a number of years he wandering from city to city, always the stranger.  (Slide)  It was during this period that he first got into the habit of not shaving. (Slide)  But as you can see, going hungry so often he was quite skinny in those days.  He took to drinking to drown his troubles.  He ended up in Cleveland, Ohio his life slipping away.  He was ready to just give up.

And then something happened.  It was Christmas Eve.  As he was crossing the street he was hit by a car.  Not so badly as to break any bones, but it did take a knock to head that put him in la-la land..  And in la-la land, he had a dream — a vision really.

(Slide.) He found himself back in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born.   He was a child again — a shepherd child along with other shepherds searching for the baby Jesus. They were looking all over — high and low — (Slide)and finally they found the baby with his mother and father in a dark cave.  There was a little fire burning — the light flickering softly, illuminating the little baby sleeping so quietly on the manger that took the place of a crib.  Arnold felt so peaceful there, like he had finally come home.   Tears star rolling down his cheeks — happy tears.  He looked up at the shepherd woman sitting next to  Mary, and it was his mother!  She looked so healthy and happy. He looked up at the man sitting beside him, and it was his father!

“Mom, Dad,” he said, “you’re alive!”

“Yes, Arnold, we always have been alive,” his mom said.  “One day you will be with us in heaven.”

“Can I go to heaven to be with you?”

“One day, my little one,” said his father.  “One day.”

“Why can’t I come now?”

“Because God has a special work for you to do on earth,” said his father.

His mother added, “God wants you to help people know joy.”


When  Arnold woke up, you might think he would have been disappointed to discover it had been a dream, but some how it didn’t matter.    It seemed so real what he had seen in his dream.  All his sadness and fear was gone.”

(Slide.) Arnold started walking down the street, not sure where he was going, but somehow certain that he was headed in the right direction.  He came upon a Church holding a Christmas Eve service.

Throughout his life, Arnold had kept his distance from churches.  Partly this had to do with the fact that he was embarrassed about the way he looked; he was always kind of dirty and didn’t dress the way he figured people did when they went to church.

But the bigger reason why Arnold had stayed away from church was because he had been angry at God.   It seemed like so many things had gone so terribly wrong in his life, starting with his parents dying.  Why had God allowed these things to happen?

But now it seemed like all his anger had left him.  So Arnold headed inside.  (Slide.)  The church was dark, but here were so many candles that broke the darkness with light.  It was lovely.  People were finishing a hymn as he entered — “O little town of Bethlehem.”

The preacher began to talk about the Christmas story, (Slide) about how Mary and Joseph were poor and had no home when Jesus was born, how they had to find shelter in the stable, which was probably just a cave.  (Slide)  How the shepherds didn’t really have real homes either, they just slept out in the fields with their sheep, which was the only thing they owned in this world.  (Slide) And how the wisemen were also away from their home, having set off on a very long journey, how they didn’t really know where they were going, but how when they finally found the baby they felt like they had truly come home for the first time in their lives.

The preacher finished up by saying that Christmas meant “Emmanuel;”  that God has made his home with us, all of us,  wherever we are.

Well, everything the preacher was saying was hitting home with Arnold, it felt like the preacher was telling the story of his own life.

Arnold felt like he had just received the most wonderful gift in the world, the gift of truly feeling at home in this world for the very first time.

(Slide)  He was struck by the fact that the wisemen had given gifts to the baby.  He imagined the gifts all wrapped up with fancy bows, (slide) and the little baby Jesus tugging at them with little baby fingers.  Suddenly this seemed to Arnold like the most wonderful thing a person could possibly do — to give gifts to others, especially to give gifts to children.

(Slide) He sat there through the rest of the service lost in his own thoughts, softly crying, and again it was happy tears, not sad.   He barely noticed that the service had come to an end, and that most of the people had left.

He realized that there was someone who was sitting beside him.  It was a woman about his own age.  He thought to himself, “she looks just like Mary did in my dream.”  She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

She had noticed he was crying, and she had come to sit beside him, because she didn’t think people should be left alone when they were crying.  She didn’t mind that he was poorly dressed, that his clothes were dirty — that he was a mess.

(Slide.) Her name was Ginger Martin, and there had been many men who had asked her to marry them.  They were handsome, and some of them had a lot of money.  But for a long time Ginger had believed God had a plan for her life, and every time she asked God whether the plan included these men, she had felt deep inside her that the answer had been no.

Arnold asked Ginger if she would like to find a place to get a cup of coffee, and a maybe a donut, and she said yes, (Slide) so they set out to find some place that was still open on Christmas Eve.  They  found a little diner called “Geri’s grill” and as they sat there sipping their coffee, Ginger listened as Arnold told her his life story —  pretty much the story I’ve been telling you.  Ginger really zeroed on the thought he had had in church about giving gifts to children.  She said that she thought  the idea had come to Arnold straight from God.

Well, Ginger and Arnold fell in love that night, and by the following Christmas they were married.   With Ginger cooking for Arnold he began to put on weight — quite a bit of weight in fact. He offered to shave off the beard, but Ginger said she rather liked it, and as the years passed it turned to white.

Over the years, with much prayer they hatched together a plan about giving gifts to children at Christmas time, as many children as possible, especially to poor children, homeless children.   As you now know from the story I’ve been telling you, Arnold had a special feeling for the homeless, having been homeless himself for so long.  (Slide) He kept thinking about how when God came to earth, he came as a homeless child, and was greeted by people who were homeless.

Ginger was fond of quoting the grown up Jesus when he said, (Slide)  “Whenever you did it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did it to me.”  So in a way, when they gave gifts to children, they would be giving them to the baby Jesus.

It was a crazy idea, an impossible idea.  How could they possibly fund such a thing, Arnold wondered. But Ginger just said, “With God, all things are possible.

It was about this time that Ginger was visiting her Uncle Louie who was very sick and about to die.  Louie had been very rich, and he hadn’t ever been very kind to the people who worked for, him, and now getting ready to meet God, Uncle Louie was feeling pretty guilty about how he had lived his life, and how at this late hour he might try to make amends for the way he had lived his life, and he shared this with Ginger.  Again, it was like God was whispering in her ear:  She told her uncle she knew exactly what he could do.

Which is how Arnold and Ginger ended up with the seed money for their dream.  They found an old warehouse up north in Canada — there was something about the tax laws there were more conducive to working out their dream.   All they need was some  willing employees who would buy into the dream.

Ginger had helped Arnold get back in touch with his brother Sammy.  It turned out Sammy had become a labor organizer back in Chicago.  He’d recently organized a strike for some severely underpaid workers, and it hadn’t gone well:  the workers had suddenly found themselves out of work.  And when Arnold and Ginger heard about this, once again it was as if they could hear God whispering in their ear.

Before long all these unemployed workers in Chicago were packing up their families and moving to Canada for jobs that paid three times as much as their old job, doing work that they could really get  excited about, making toys for the children of the world.

Arnold realized that that his name, Arnold Wolfheimer just wasn’t didn’t roll off peoples’ tongues easily, so for marketing purposes, he wanted a new name.

(Slide.) Ginger told Arnold about a Saint that lived back in the third century named St. Nicholas whose story Arnold found himself identifying with on a number of levels.  Nicholas’ parents also died when he was just a young man.  Like Arnold, Nicholas had a special feeling for the downdroden, going so far as to give his inheritance away to help the poor and the sick of his community.  Like Arnold, Nicholas loved Jesus, and like Arnold, he had a white beard.  Ginger started calling Arnold “St. Nick”, and it caught on around the plant.

One of the neat things about the workers was their diversity: they came from all over the world, and enjoyed getting to know each other’s cultures, which was something Arnold and Ginger really valued because, they said, the baby Jesus welcomed people with really diverse backgrounds,  such as  poor shepherds from Bethlehem and wisemen from far away in Persia, and that got along just swell.

There was this Mexican worker named Omar who began calling Arnold “Santa Nick,” because “Santa” is the Spanish word for “Saint.”  Arnold liked the sound of “Santa”, but he felt like it needed a different last name to go with it.

A contest was held to come up with the best last name for Arnold, and this German guy named Hans came up with “Claus” because he had a favorite uncle named Claus who was great to the kids at Christmas time.  And Arnold liked that, so “Santa Claus” it was, and Santa Claus it has been ever since.  And the workers started calling themselves “Santa’s elves”, partly because some of them tended to be on the short side, but mainly because they just had so much fun together, like little kids.  (Slide.) This is a picture of them playing rugby during their lunch hour.

(Slide.) Well as you know Mr. and Mrs. Claus as they are now called have gotten to be pretty old.  They’ve loved every minute of their work, but I do have to tell you they have a few concerns now late in life.

The first concern is a small thing and it has to do with all the electronic toys kids are asking for.  They can be fine for short periods of time, but when kids end up preferring to play with these kinds of toys instead of playing with other kids or their families, that’s a problem.  “Play should be shared,” is how they like to put.

A bigger concern, however  is that their dream was never that this should end up being all about them, or to be something they alone did.   They always had in mind that what they did would catch on as something lots and lots of people get involved in.   They’re particularly concerned that there are poor children in this world that, for whatever reason they can’t seem to locate when Christmas comes, and they end up getting nothing at all, and feeling abandoned and unloved.  This just breaks the hearts of Mr. and Mrs. Claus.  So Santa asks that instead of leaving him cookies and such on Christmas eve, which he really shouldn’t be eating anyway, that you make a donation to your local food bank to help care for hungry people.

(Slide.) And Mr. and Mrs. Claus also worry that in a lot of peoples’ minds Santa has become bigger than the baby Jesus — that people are forgetting whose birthday this is.

The only reason Santa does what he does is because of the love he found with Jesus.  Jesus is the inspiration for everything he does.  He was lost, but now he’s found, and he attributes this all to Jesus, whose love is the biggest love of all.