An Interview with Saint Nicholas
adapted from the St. Louis Signing Santa
This is a lengthy interview, so you may wish to select the questions that would be of most interest to your group. And, of course, any resource like this may be edited to suit one's particular audience. Some of the dates represent conjecture as the only Nicholas date known with any degree of certainty is Nicholas' day of death, 6 December 242 or 243.
Interviewer (I): Good morning! Please welcome St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Good morning Bishop Nicholas, welcome.
Nicholas (N): Good morning. But please, let us be informal, Nicholas is fine.
I: Thank you. Would you tell us a bit about your early life?
N: Gladly, I was born in the year of our Lord 280 in Patara, then Greek territory but now in modern day Turkey. As you know it was a city that the Apostle Paul had visited. By the time of my birth, Patara was a largely Christian city, with a Bishop. My parents were Christians and wealthy. Their wealth allowed me to receive a good education. I was able to read the scriptures by age 5. It was a great loss to me when both parents died when I was only 16. I was left in the care of my uncle who was an abbot at a monastery. As an only child I inherited the wealth of my family. I immediately determined to give it away. Taking my lead from the story of the rich young man whom Jesus told to give all his possessions to the poor.
I: I know that you were a Bishop at a young age, did your wealth help in getting that position?
N: No, thankfully the patronage system of obtaining such positions was still a few hundred years away. Emperor Diocletian had been the ruler of the Roman world, and his systematic persecution of Christians was empire-wide. That meant that the selection of Bishop and other clergy had to be done very carefully. I had relocated to the town of Myra, the capital of Lycia. It is in modern day Turkey, too. As you may recall the Apostle Paul also stopped there on his journey to Rome. It happened that the Bishop of Myra had died, and the area bishops had gathered to select his replacement. After much debate they could not reach a decision. The oldest bishop present had a vision that the first person to enter the church the next morning would be God's man for the job so to speak. It was my habit to go the church every day, in the early hours, to pray. So I was the first person to enter the church. So I was declared to be God's choice and I became Bishop of Myra. That was the year AD 318, when I was 28 years old.
I: You just mentioned the Emperor Diocletian. Did his rule have any impact upon you?
N: Oh yes, during his reign (AD 284-305) I was exiled, imprisoned, and tortured. I was facing martyrdom, but was spared when Diocletian died. Because of the terrible persecution under Diocletian there were many problems in the Church. There were the debates about what to do with "lapsed Christians." These were believers who recanted their faith under torture but when released wanted to return to the Church. Likewise there was the issue of others who turned in their fellow Christians to avoid arrest. At that same time the heretic Arius was spreading his false teaching that the Son, Jesus, was not equal to the Father. When Constantine became Emperor he gave the Church legal status. There was so much division that Constantine called a Council of Bishops (the First Ecumenical Council) which convened in Nicea in the year AD 325 to discuss the Arian heresy. I attended, of course, and took a firm stand with the Egyptian Bishop Athenasus. Together the Bishops who stood firm with scripture won out and developed the creedal statement that says that the Father and Son are of the same essence.
I: I had always heard that Constantine had made the Church the state religion, and as a result many unconverted people came in and the doctrines of the church were weakened as a result.
N: No that is not precisely accurate. Constantine gave the church recognized, or legal, status. Christianity was not made the state religion until several years after Constantine's death. The fact the Constantine was a Christian did mean that some trying to gain his favor entered the Church on false grounds. But I don't believe they had significant impact. I vividly recall that as we Bishops, almost all of who had been tortured for our faith, entered the meeting room at Nicea, Constantine knelt before each of us and kissed the scars from our tortures. Not the act of a man who was supposedly full of pride and determined to rule the church.
I: Thank you for that information, I had not heard that about Constantine before. You are well known for your acts of charity. Did they begin when you became Bishop of Myra?
N: Oh no, much earlier than that. Very soon after I received my inheritance I began to give it away. Because our Lord had said to give alms in secret I would frequently go out at night wearing a long robe with a hood to hide my face and give to the poor. One of my most famous acts of charity was to provide money for the dowries of the daughters of an upper class man who had lost all of his wealth. Without dowries the girls would not be able to marry and most likely would have been sold into slavery or prostitution. In order to follow the Lord's command to give alms in secret I tossed three bags of gold coins through the window of the girls' house. Legend has it that the bags miraculously landed in the shoes (or stockings) of each girl. I can't say anything about that, because I outside and could not see where the money landed. From this story comes the image of me with three bags of gold. God blessed me with the ability to continue to do various acts of charity through out my life and ministry.
I: You are the patron saint of a long list of nations and professions, how did that come about?
N:As so many other saints who are patrons for various groups, many of my patronages are the results of miracles attributed to me. Let me give a few examples:
Legend has it that the day of my consecration as Bishop a young woman was bathing her baby, and when she heard the bells announcing the ceremony she forgot about her child and ran to the church to observe my ordination. The child was left in a tub that was over a fire to heat the water, but when the woman remembered her child and rushed home she found him unharmed and happy. This was the first reported miracle of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. and I am now the patron saint of children.
Some years later a ship was caught in a terrible storm, and the sailors called out to God to save them. Suddenly a strange man appeared at the helm and guided the ship safely through the storm. As the storm subsided the man disappeared. When the ship came safely into port the sailors went to the church to give God thanks for saving them. There they saw me, whom they recognized as the man who had appeared at the helm. Thus I became the patron saint for sailors and dockworkers.
A cruel innkeeper killed three boys and placed their bodies in a pickling barrel. Some legends say that he intended to feed them to customers in his inn to reduce meat cost, others legends say that he wanted the ransom for their bodies. When I heard of this despicable act I went to the inn and confronted the man. When I prayed, the boys were raised back to life. Somehow I became the patron saint of coopers (barrel makers).
I am also the patron Saint of Russia and Greece, as well as numerous cities. I also serve as the patron saint of brides, grooms, judges, druggists, pawnbrokers, penitent thieves, and many more.
I: Precisely what is a saint?
N: Well, technically all Christians are saints. The word hagios refers to any thing or person who is devoted to God. Therefore, every Christian in the room is a Saint, if they are devoted to God. In a more narrow sense the Greek and Roman church have bestowed "sainthood" on many persons that have been considered particularly holy. Generally, the person must have performed miracles; displays of charity and a holy life are also required to be canonized as a Saint. With the Reformation many non-Roman or Greek Christians set aside the idea of saints. Rightly so I think, but I also think that many Protestants have thrown out the baby with the bath water to use a contemporary analogy. There is much to learn from the lives of those who have walked the life of faith before us, and many thousands of Christians deserve the honor and respect of today's Christians for the example they have set.
I: What, then, is a patron saint?
N: That would be a person who has been declared a saint and is then associated with a particular land, nation, profession or group. They are considered protectors and intercessors. For instance, I am the patron saint of penitent thieves. They can pray to me, and I would then intercede before God for them. It is similar to asking one's friends and other Christians to pray for you, only this is asking Christians who are already with God— it is part of the Communion of Saints.
I: How did you come to be associated with the city of Bari, Italy?
N: I served Myra as Bishop for 25 years. When I died on the 6th of December in the year of our Lord 343. I was buried in the Church. The people of Myra missed me very much and after my death they continued to honor me with festivals on the 6th of December. During these festivals children would receive gifts of money and special foods. Likewise beggars and other poor people would be given food and clothing.
Pilgrims came to my tomb for many years after my death. In the year AD 540 an elaborate Basilica was built over my tomb, and dedicated to me. By the way, did you know more churches are named for me than any other person, except Mary, including the apostles? It is very humbling actually. When the Saracens invaded the city they damaged the church. In 1087 some Italian merchants came to the city and found my tomb. The opened the tomb and smuggled my bones to Bari, Italy, where my tomb remains. The Pope unofficially approved this action, as he wanted to protect my relics from desecration by the frequent wars fought in the area around the ruins of Myra. In Bari my bones continued to exude a liquid called Manna, which continues to our time. It is said that those who touch the Manna may be miraculously healed. I don't have the medical or physiological expertise to address those healings. I can only know that there are healings that are not explained.
I: Can you tell us how you evolved from St Nicholas to the modern day Santa Claus?
N: I can try, but it is a bit convoluted even for me. As I said, the people of Myra were honoring me on the anniversary of my death very soon after I had died. This custom spread throughout Christendom during the Middle Ages. By the year 850 the priests in Cologne were commemorating my feast day with gifts of fruit and cookies to the boys in the Cathedral school, and by 1120 Belgium Nuns were giving gifts the children of the poor on the 6th of December. The custom spread throughout Western Europe.
With the Protestant Reformation the celebration of saints days in much of Northern Europe and Britain ended. Later after the Puritan revolution in England even the celebration of Christmas was banned. However the tradition of St Nicholas, or Father Christmas, was kept alive by the mumming plays where Father Christmas would enter the stage saying "In comes I, Old Father Christmas, Be I welcome or be I not, I hope Christmas will ne'er be forgot."
I: I did not realize the Christmas celebrations had ever been outlawed. How did the celebration re-emerge?
N: The celebration of Christmas was outlawed in England and her colonies. In much of the rest of Europe the keeping of Christmas continued, although there were many changes to the traditions. Some of these changes were the result of some pagan practices being altered and brought into the celebration of Christmas. An example is the idea of me flying across the sky to deliver gifts. That tradition got it's start from the legend of the Norse god Odin flying across the sky with his long white beard flying in the wind. Prior to that time, I was always depicted with a short beard.
Many immigrants brought their customs to this country. After the American Revolution there was interest in identifying with things that were not English.
In 1809 the author Washington Irving wrote a fanciful fiction about me, and my connection to New York through the Dutch settlers. But it wasn't until 1810 that the New York Historical Society held the first St Nicholas celebration. Part of that event was the first portrait of me in the United States.
As everyone knows in 1821 the Reverend Clement Moore in his poem "A Visit from St Nicholas" described me in detail. I must say that the description did not fit me well, but between his poem and the descriptions by Irving and the New York Historical Society my image was irreparably altered. Part of that is the image of me as a bit plump. Older images were very thin. During my life I fasted every Wednesday and Friday. That custom began as child in my home and continued until my death. One is not likely to be plump fasting two days a week.
In 1863 the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a political cartoon for Harper's Weekly. I was depicted in a stars and stripes costume, and was seen as a supporter for the northern side in the American Civil War. This cartoon wasn't so important but it started a tradition of Nast drawings every Christmas season and Nast's image became the widely accepted look for Santa Claus, or more correctly St Nicholas.
It was also at this time that Father Christmas became a customary visitor to English homes, bringing gifts to the children. Speaking of England did you know that until Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" (one of my favorite books) people never had the day off for Christmas. Scrooge started a trend that is almost world wide now. There are a lot of other details I could bring up, but I think we have said enough for now.
I: I would be interested in knowing your thoughts about contemporary Christmas celebrations.
N: I am happy to see the birth of our Lord celebrated. I am not concerned one way or the other about all the commercialism connected with the holiday, it is as it is. I remind myself of the Apostles Paul's statement in his letter to the Philippians Christians. "What then: Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached, and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice."Philippians 1:18.I remind myself often that while there are things about Christmas these days that aren't particularly Christian, the season remains a time when Christ is preached and sung about. There is one area that bothers me a bit however.
I: What might that be?
N: There is a tradition that dates back many hundreds of years. St Nicholas supposedly only brings gifts to good children; naughty children get bundles of sticks or coal, or something like that. The gifts Santa Claus brings are patterned after the gifts I took to poor people so many years ago. As I said, I patterned my giving after the gift that God gave us in his own dear Son. Gifts of love and mercy should not be determined by the behavior of the person the gift is for.
I: I see we are out of time. Is there anything else you would like to say?
N: Only this, people say that I have inspired acts of kindness and love for centuries. I only hope that is true and that those traditions continue.
back to top
Adapted from "An Interview with St. Nicholas," by St. Louis Signing Santa. Used by permission.