Does St. Nicholas deserve his place amongst humanities most kindest, gentlest, generous and loving individuals to have walked this earth? Maybe, probably, yeah why not! It is astonishing to think that from humble beginnings, he was a man who put everyone ahead of himself, especially the poor and needy, the innocent and those who staved from famine. He also had a reputation of gift-giving. In the stories told of him he apparently provided dowries of gold to poor girls and or leaving coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. He has inspired billions of Christians around the world today as the popular figure known as Santa Claus or Father Christmas. It is important to note that over time his legend has been combined with elements of the Norse god Odin and Nordic tales of magicians who rewarded good children with gifts and punished naughty children with none.
The historic Saint Nicholas was a fourth century priest, the Bishop of Myra in Lycia (Anatolia or modern-day Turkey). He was born (270 AD) during a turbulent time in history when the persecution of Christians was still a common practice. After his parents died, he was taken in by his uncle, who was a bishop himself. He raised and trained Nicholas as a church reader and later ordained him as a priest. Legend states that when he eventually made his way to Myra, the clergy and the people of the region, who were in the middle of electing a new bishop, without reservation chose Nicholas as their new spiritual leader. However, before he could settle down in his position as bishop, the Roman magistrates in his province, arrested and tortured Nicholas and eventually chained and threw him into prison. Not until Constantine the Great proclaimed the Edict of Milan in 312 AD, granting Christians religious liberty, would Nicholas and all other Christian prisoners be released.
St. Nicholas would return to his post as Bishop of Myra and later even answer to the request of Constantine to appear at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. At the council, he apparently rejected the teachings of Arianism. St. Methodius is allegedly quoted as saying that “thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the (province) of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.” St. Nicholas would also as one of the many bishops at the council, sign the Nicene Creed as a defender of the Orthodox faith.
Much of his life and work as a generous and kind man and subsequent miracles are steeped in legend. Stories of his good deeds are many and are commemorated in icons throughout the ages. He is revered by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches as a saint. Though, it seems that his greatest popularity lies in Russia. He is also famously the patron saint of children, which undoubtedly gives rise to his popularity as the “original Santa Claus”. Importantly, he is also patron saint of Greece, sailors, merchants, the falsely accused, pawnbrokers and the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors.
This certainly puts a different perspective on Santa Claus. The real St Nicholas seemed like he would have been a great guy to know during his day. I guess his legend is appropriated by whatever cultural mores are at the time. There is the coke rumour that happened last century, although not sure if that’s true…it’s that the red from his costume was a homage to Coca Cola. Perhaps we should all return to contemplating the real St Nicholas and what he stood for instead of all the present-buying frenzy.