Saint Nicholas

December 6, 1998
Brother John Raymond

Little is known about the early life of St. Nicholas. He is believed to have been born into a wealthy family in the Lycian seaport town of Patara. He was imprisoned and tortured for refusing to denounce his Christian faith during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian {AD 285-305 }. He was released under Emperor Constantine. As Bishop of Myra, in Turkey, it is believed that Nicholas attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Nicholas' remains were, originally, entombed at Myra, modern Demre. His body exuded a sweet smelling "myrrh," which kept it from corruption and proved a health-giving remedy against sickness. In 1087, the Saint's relics were moved to Bari, Italy, where they are still enshrined in the Basilica of St. Nicola and continue to exude this myrrh.

Nicholas quickly became a beloved saint worldwide. He is a favorite patron saint, especially in Greece and Russia. He is the patron saint of Moscow. St. Nicholas' Feast Day is December 6th, the date of his death in around AD 350. In many Eastern traditions, December 6th is a festive day of thanksgiving and gift giving.

What is the connection between this venerable Bishop and Santa Claus? Legend has it that Nicholas worked numerous deeds for those in need. His parents died when he was very young leaving him with quite wealthy. Nicholas determined to devote his inheritance to works of charity. His best known deed is about a nobleman who had fallen on hard times and did not have the money to pay the marriage dowries of his three daughters. Nicholas, as Bishop, learned of their need, went to the house at night and threw a bag of gold coins in one of the daughter's window. She married. Later, he deposited a bag of coins in through the next girl's window and she got married. Finally, he came back to give the money to the third girl, but all the windows of the house were locked. So, the good Bishop climbed up on the roof and dropped the bag of money down through the chimney. The coins fell into the girls' stockings that were hanging on the fireplace mantle to dry. Does this sound familiar? This legend is where we get the tradition of hanging stockings for Santa to fill with treats and gifts on Christmas Eve!

Other acts of St. Nicholas' appear in 6th century Greek text. He is credited with resurrecting three children burned to death in a fire and saving, yet another child, from drowning. He is said to have purchased a rug from a poor street vendor for an inflated price and then give the rug to the vendor's wife as a gift. This way the saint was able to help the couple without embarrassing them.

The transition of St. Nicholas to Father Christmas occurred first in Germany where the Reformed Protestant churches were in a majority. In the Dutch Reformed Church, St. Nicholas was known as Sinter Claes, which became Santa Claus in English speaking countries.

How did we get the jolly old Santa with the red suit and big belly? During the American Civil War, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast tried to lift the moral of the Union soldiers by drawing a gift bearing Santa Claus in a red, white and blue suit. And this drawing was based on the story wrote "Twas the Night Before Christmas" written by a New York City professor of theology Dr. Clement Moore {1779-1863} to entertain his restless children!

The legends and accounts surrounding the Bishop of Myra, his charity, miracles and love for children and family make him the real Santa. Perhaps families can celebrate this Saint's Feast Day by doing something charitable for someone in need. And, of course, you might want to tell your children that Santa Claus was a Catholic Bishop! Now that would lead to some interesting discussion.