Who was Saint Nicholas? How did he become Santa Claus?
Punching heretics in the face, swinging an ax at the demonically possessed and saving babies from being boiled alive. Ah yes, doesn’t that just get you in the Christmas spirit? While these things seem like something out of a strange fairy tale, they were mostly all too real in the days of the early church. And while Christmas, demon banishing axes, and angry religious folk don’t seem to have much to do with that silent, holy night, you might be surprised at just how connected they actually are. These are just a few of the many accounts attributed to Saint Nicholas of Myra.
Everyone knows of Santa Claus. The red suit, jolly laugh, big belly, and bag of presents are seasonal icons ushering in peace on earth, or at least that’s how the story goes. But long before Santa’s reindeer soared across the midnight sky, there was a wealthy, young man destined to leave such a lasting impression on Christian history that we would still at least in some way be talking about him to this day.
So If you are ready, let me take you down the streets of Christmas past to see who Santa Claus was before the white beard and red cheeks. So toss on your favorite PJs, cozy up together next to a nice fire, Grab yourself some hot cocoa, close your eyes and allow the Yuletide spirit to take you back to where it all began, some 1700 years ago.
His mother and father begged God for a child. For upwards of 30 years, their deepest desire was to conceive and after a long period of waiting, their prayers were answered. Theophanes and Nonna rejoiced at the sight of their new baby boy and with gratitude in their hearts, named him Nicholas after his uncle, an abbot from the nearby town.
Nicholas grew up in a home where he was able to flourish mentally, physically, and spiritually. His family was quite wealthy with more than enough to provide for themselves as well as to help the poor and needy around them. They were members of the church Paul himself established in Patara, a coastal port town in Lycia, Asia (Now known as Turkey). As Nicholas grew up, he spent much of his time serving in the church with his uncle learning the ways of the monks. But Nicholas’ normal childhood was about to change dramatically.
In his early teen years, both Nicholas’ parents contracted the Plague, possibly from helping the sick and needy in their community. By his mid-teen years, both of his parents passed away. Nicholas, now orphaned, moved in with his uncle and gave himself completely to the works of the church, learning from the monks the mysteries of religious history, philosophy, and theology.
But Nicholas’ parents didn’t leave him with nothing. As an only child, he was now the beneficiary of his parent’s fortune. He would go on to use that money to carry his parent’s legacy of compassion, becoming the patron saint of not just children, but of pawnbrokers and prostitutes as well. But let’s not skip ahead, because the life of Saint Nicholas is not a life easily summed up in a single paragraph.
Saint Nicholas performed many noble tasks, miracles, and ruffled a few feathers along the way. A short man, standing at only 5 feet tall, his bite was a lot bigger than his bark you might say. I guess the beach boys got this one right: little Saint Nick just about hits the nail on the head. When archeologists examined his tomb, they found that his nose had been crushed in, no doubt from enduring persecution for the name of Christ. But turning the other cheek wasn’t exactly his cup of cider as we are about to find out.
In AD 325, Constantine assembled a council to canonize historical writings and to come to an official stance on the trinitarian theology. The Council of Nicea consisted of over 300 bishops across the Christian spectrum and yes, Saint Nicholas was one of these bishops. You heard me right, Dear old Santa helped canonize the same bible we still use to this day.
As the council gathered and spoke, a bishop from Egypt named Arius took the stand. He argued at length his philosophy that Jesus was not equal to God. They, being unique beings, had a hierarchy and Jesus fell somewhere in the middle. Most of the council listened to Arius’ perspective patiently but Nicholas was fuming inside. As a staunch Trinitarian, he saw everything Arius was saying as strict heresy and he could not allow this nonsense to continue.
Nicholas then got up from his chair, crossed the room, turned to Arius, and with furious anger punched him square in the face causing the entire council to fall silent as they gazed on in utter shock. How could such a holy gathering have come to this? Nicholas was then stripped of his bishop’s garments and brought before Constantine who turned him back over to the council to do with as they pleased. Angrily they chained him and tossed him into prison to continue their sessions.
Though unwavering in his beliefs and feeling as if he stood for truth, the not so jolly saint fell to his knees and cried out to God to forgive him for losing his temper. It is said that during the night he was visited by the spirit of both Jesus and Mary who asked him why he had been imprisoned. After confessing his passion and love for Christ, Jesus handed him a copy of the gospels and Mary placed on him a Bishop’s shaw. Peace befell Nicholas and as his shackles loosened, he sat quietly reading the scriptures for the rest of the night.
When the jailer saw his chains had fallen off and he had been redressed in his priestly robes, he passed the news on to Constantine who reinstated Nicholas as the Bishop of Myra. Soon the council of Nicea sided with him against the opinions of Arius and the Nicene Creed was written: The same creed most of our churches use to this day. Thanks, Santa!
Saint Nicholas was a man unafraid to do something drastic. When Nicholas returned to his home church in Lycia, he grew sick of the people’s love for their old deity, the Greek goddess Artemis. He began a campaign to have her temple removed and with much passion and force, he conducted a strike against the place of worship and had it destroyed all the way down to its foundation.
He was also known to be quite the expeller of demons. There are multiple accounts of people being freed from their demonic oppression at the voice of Saint Nicholas. But sometimes it takes a bit more than a bold word.
Across Myra, shrines had been built as idols to their old gods. Once Christian influence had taken over and Nicholas became the bishop of their church, he sat out on a quest to banish every idolatrous totem across his city. Everywhere he went he kept an eye out for these shrines so he could tear them to the ground.
One day, he received word from some of the villagers in Plakoma, a neighboring town. They begged him to come and relieve them of the demonic forces that plagued their village. The demons in Plakoma had taken root in an old Cyprus tree in the middle of the town square. So off Nick set to bring peace to his fellow parishioners. Armed with an ax, he confronted the demons swinging it at their throats. He destroyed their habitation and the demons fled in terror for their lives.
From this point on, people across the land asked Saint Nick to come with his ax and banish the dark forces that plagued their lands. At one point, he was even said to encounter and calm a dragon that was bringing strife to one of the communities he served!
Good ole Nick wasn’t all righteous vindication. He had plenty of compassion in that heart of his as well. This is best exemplified in one of the most famous stories surrounding his life.
Saint Nicholas heard through the grapevine of a faithful man who had fallen to hard times. The eldest of his three daughters was about to be marrying age and without a dowry to offer a prospective husband, she was on the fast track to end up in prostitution. In this time it was common for women who had nothing to offer a potential husband to be sold into slavery and sex trafficking.
The story goes that Saint Nicholas waited until the dead of night, snuck up to the man’s house, and tossed a bag of gold in through the window while they all laid asleep. The bag fell into a sock draped in the girl’s shoe and when she woke and went to get dressed for the day, she found the bag of coins from the mysterious giver. Nicholas kept tabs on the family and when the middle child came of age, he repeated his nightly gift giving once more.
When the youngest girl grew to age, the father had a suspicion the sneaky gift giver might make an appearance so on the night of her birthday the father waited in the dark to catch and thank whoever was responsible. When he saw nick approach the window, bag of gold in hand, he greeted him and fell down thanking him for his good works. Of course, Nick wanted none of the credit and instead told the man to thank God for his provisions and to tell no one about the kind deeds. He wanted the focus to remain on God though since we are talking about this story thousands of years later I take it someone didn’t stick to the whole silent plan very well.
This kind act spared those three young girls from being tossed into the cruel world of prostitution and gave them hope for their futures. Oh, and if you have ever wondered why we hang our stockings by the chimney with care, this story is what started the tradition. After all, you never know when Saint Nicholas might soon be there to drop the perfect gift in at just the right time. But this isn’t the only time Santa showed up for three children. While this deed was most certainly of goodwill, the next story we are about to go over was a matter of life or death.
There were once three young boys playing in a field but like any good gang of children would, they began to grow bored so they found themselves wandering off into town. The problem came when the young boys lost track of time and it started to grow dark. Lost, hungry, and growing tired, they knocked on the nearest door they could find.
A man answered the door and the children asked if they could come in and rest. They explained their situation to the stranger and much to their excitement, he invited them in for a hot meal and to rest. Once inside, the man identifies himself as the town butcher. He explains how times have been tough and he was running low on food but that they could have some of the scraps he had left. The boys ate and fell fast asleep but this wasn’t a normal sleep; you see the boys had been drugged.
The butcher then robbed them, stripped them down, and chopped them into pieces. He then tossed their dismembered bodies into a salt brine to cure so he could sell their meat off as ham.
All was going to plan until God began to tug on Saint Nicholas’ heartstrings to pay the local butcher a visit. A knock rings through the shop as the butcher walks over to see who is there. Then, in walks Saint Nicholas demanding for him to open up his tub of salty brine. Led by the spirit, he reaches into the tub, grabs something and declares, “Rise up, children!”. At that moment the three boys came out of the salt as if nothing had ever happened. They were brought home to their families where they were welcomed with tears of joy and open arms. This is the event that led Saint Nicholas to become the patron saint of children the world over. And after that, I don’t know if I can ever look at a Christmas ham the same way again.
Saint Nicholas lived a long life of servanthood, ministry, and charitable works. He healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons in a way Jesus from Matthew 10:8 would be proud of. I mean, if you believe the stories than Jesus expressed this himself!
But all good things must come to an end and for Saint Nicholas, his end came in 343 AD. At the end of his years, he looked to heaven and declared, “I have hope in thee, O Lord. Into thine hands, I commend my spirit”. At that moment his spirit left his body and he went to be with the one he spent his life in dedication to. His body was taken back to the temple he spent most of his life serving in Myra and he was buried there in a marble tomb but this miracle worker had one more surprise…well, I’d say up his leave but that might be taking it a bit too far.
You see, when Saint Nicholas died, a river of white manna began to seep out of his body. Some people thought it was decomposition, others believed it might be condensation, but when the tomb began to smell sweet like honey it was obvious this was a Devine miracle at hand. And his tomb still secretes this white liquid to this day.
People all over have traveled to bottle a bit of this mysterious white liquid as a totem of this saint’s life. Some have even gone so far as to consume it as a cure-all for disease. Even the famous composer, Mozart, on his death bed bought into this idea. He had someone retrieve for him a sample of this liquid and when it only made him sicker he believed someone swapped the liquid for poison.
As I previously stated, Every good thing must end, but if you live a life full of love and compassion do you every truly die? The stories of Saint Nicholas might have twisted and changed over the years. The colors might be a bit brighter. The imagery has become more imaginative and mystical, in part thanks to Dutch settlers in the United States, a cartoonist named Thomas Nast, an 1823 poem titled “Twas the night before Christmas”, and a bunch of marketing by Coca-cola. But at the root of it all, we still have the same idea. Peace on earth, goodwill towards man, compassion, love, and giving to those in need.
So maybe the stories have shifted over the years. Maybe the truth has been decorated to fit our narrative and the imagery has transformed from religious icon to pop culture decoration. But those of us who take the time to look a bit deeper can come to respect how seasons have weathered the story of Saint Nicholas. It’s kind of like a stone found in the bed of a river. Time, like water, might have worn down those jagged edges and polished up the surface but at its core, it’s still the same ole stone. IT just looks a lot better on a shelf don’t you think?
So here’s to another silent night, another family gathering, a few more Christmas carols, and some soft-baked cookies. A few wrapped gifts under a tree and some dazzling lights aglow. And remember, while its fun to know the how, where, and when, sometimes the most important thing to remember is simply why. Because when you find you’re why there you’ll find your heart.
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