Merry Christmas! I hope you all are enjoying Advent and looking forward to a wonderful holiday season. I am writing this exactly three weeks before Christmas, but there is another, lesser-known Christian holiday coming up on December 6th. Happy St. Nicholas Day! Far from being simply another name for Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors, Greece, Russia, and punching heretics in the face during ecumenical councils. Ok, maybe not that last one, but he is still one of the most popular Christian saints of all time. Though what we know of his life is most likely a mixture of legends and fact, he stands a beacon pointing towards the One whose birth we are preparing to celebrate
Born into a wealthy Greek Christian family in what is now Turkey, St. Nicholas was raised by his uncle, the bishop of Patara, after his parents died at a young age. Very religious from a young age, he was tonsured as a reader and eventually ordained a priest by his uncle. He was well known for his charity and love of children. According to one legend, a rich man with three daughters fell upon hard times and lost his wealth. Without dowry for his daughters, they would be unable to find a husband and would have to be sold into slavery or worse. Hearing of the family’s predicament, St. Nicholas visited their home during the night and threw a bag of money he had inherited from his parents through the window, landing in a stocking left before the fire to dry (Hence why stockings are “hung by the chimney with care” on Christmas Eve). He continued to do this for the other two daughters, saving them from a terrible fate.
Eventually, Nicholas was named bishop of the city of Myra, supposedly after God sent visions to the bishops in charge of electing the next one. He initially refused, not seeing himself as worthy of such a role. Arrested and tortured under the Diocletian Persecution, he was later freed when Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire and was among the bishops who attended the First Ecumenical Council. Supposedly, he was so enraged by Arius’s heresy (Arius denied that Christ was co-eternal and/or equal with God the Father) that he got up and slapped him in the face. Probably not the best way to show Christ’s love. Emperor Constantine and the other bishops were shocked that Nicholas would do such a thing and threw him into jail, stripped of his bishop robes. That night Jesus and the Virgin Mary appeared to him, asking him why he was in prison. He replied, “Because of my love for you.” Christ gave him a Gospel book and Mary gave him a liturgical stole known as an Omophorion, both symbols of a bishop’s position and authority. When this was discovered, the emperor ordered him set free and reinstated him into the council. In the end, he was one of the bishops approved the Nicene Creed, which to this day is recited every Sunday in many churches around the world.
Finally, from the earliest known biography of St. Nicholas’s life “some people came from the city to that most holy man, saying: “Lord, if you had been in the city, three innocents would not have been handed over to death as they were, because Judge Datianus, taking those three men into custody, has ordered them beheaded. The whole city is in a turmoil because Your Sanctity was not to be found there.”
On hearing this, the most holy bishop became downcast… Coming to a plaza named Leonti, he asked those who were coming away from those who had received sentence whether they were still alive. They told him that the men still lived and were directly ahead at a place known as Dioscorus, which they would find at the martyrium of the brother confessors Crescentius and Dioscorus. As they were talking, Nicholas said that the victims ought by now to be coming out. When they got to the gate, some told him that they were in a place called Byrra: that was to be place of the beheading.
Saint Nicholas, now running, found a great crowd of people before the executioner, who was holding his sword up, anticipating the coming of the holy man. When Nicholas came up to the place of the confessors of Christ, he found the three men with their faces covered with linen cloths. They had been placed in position, with their hands tied behind them. They were bending their knees and bowing their heads, expecting death.
At that moment Saint Nicholas, just as it is written, “The righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs xxviii, 1), fearlessly grabbed the sword from the executioner and cast it to the ground. Loosening the men from their chains, he took them with him to the city.
Walking down to the Pretorium, he thrust open the door and entered the presence of Eustathius the Praeses. The Praeses, hearing from a guard what had been done, now walked up to honor the holy man. But the servant of God, Nicholas, turned away from him saying: “Sacrilegious blood shedder! How dare you confront me, apprehended in so many and such evil acts! I will not spare or forgive you, but will let the mighty emperor Constantine know about you—how many and how serious are the sins which you have been discovered in, and in what fashion you administer your princely prefecture.”
Then Eustathius the Praeses fell to his knees and begged him: “Be not wrathful with thy servant, lord, but speak the truth, that I am not the guilty one, but the heads of state, Eudoxius and Simonides.”
Nonetheless the holy man answered: “It is not Eudoxius and Simonides who did this, but silver and gold.” For the holy man had learned that the Praeses was to receive more than two hundred pounds of silver to execute the citizens for crime. Yet the most holy man, after the officers of the army had earnestly spoken in behalf of the Praeses, granted him pardon, once the charges which the Praeses had leveled against the three men were cleared.”
Saint Nicholas is not just another name for Santa, but a true Dunker Punk whose devotion to God a service to others left such an impression that he is still remembered today, even if in a highly warped fashion. His relics are in Bari, Italy, which they arrived at after being “transferred” (read stolen) from his original tomb in Myra, but his legacy can be found around the world. So next time someone asks you if you believe in Santa, take some time to tell the story of Saint Nicholas of Myra, the real Santa.
Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever.
P.S. If you enjoy these articles Forward Movement, a ministry of the Episcopal Church, has recently published two free curriculums online about the saints of the church, one for children and one for adults. Obviously it is written from an Episcopalian perspective, but could be easily adapted from others.
Nolan McBride is a History and Religion major at Manchester University. He loves music, theater, and learning about Christian traditions around the world. He enjoys swimming and singing and is still sore about his family’s namesake, St. Brigid of Kildare, losing to St. Francis of Assisi in the last Lent Madness competition. You can follow him on twitter at @nmcbride35, and find him on Facebook.
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