Meet the Real Saint Nicholas

Giver, Deliverer, Shepherd and Legacy

By Fr. John Finley

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19th century Russian icon
St Nicholas Center Collection

As Christmas time approaches, Christian parents often find themselves in a quandary: Should they perpetuate the popular myth of Santa Claus, thereby possibly misdirecting their children's focus toward "what they're going to get for Christmas;" or should they debunk Santa and risk pushing their children prematurely toward the practical cynicism we adults sometimes display?

Fortunately, for parents who venerate the saints of the Church, there is a solution to this quandary: We can teach our children about the real Santa Claus, the righteous wonderworker Saint Nicholas of Myra. For those unfamiliar with this holy man's story, we'll just touch briefly on the highlights of his life and work. Let the kids read along!

A Longed-For Child

Saint Nicholas was born in AD 280 in Patara, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor. He was the only son of his noble and wealthy parents, Theophanes and Nona. Nicholas's parents had been childless their whole married life. Many times they prayed with tears that God would grant them a son. They even distributed large amounts of their money and possessions to the poor in order to keep their hearts from growing hard.

When Nicholas was finally born, Theophanes and Nona immediately dedicated their only son to God. His uncle Nicholas, Bishop of Patara and founder of the New Zion Monastery in that town, instructed the young Nicholas in the spiritual life. When the boy grew to manhood, Bishop Nicholas ordained him to be a priest in the Church.

Nicholas disciplined himself through fasting and prayer. When his parents died, he began to distribute all the money and property he had inherited from them to those who begged him for help. Despite his youth, Nicholas had earned a reputation for his kindness and wisdom.

A Secret Giver

There was a man living in Patara who had once been wealthy and renowned, but he had lost his fortune and fallen into poverty. People who had known and respected him when he was rich now made fun of him and would not speak to him. This man had three beautiful daughters. When the family began to run out of food and clothing, the man became desperate and planned to make money in an evil way.

Hearing of the father's poverty, Nicholas felt sorry for him and decided to deliver his family from spiritual harm by giving them some of the money from his family inheritance. However, the saint did not want to be seen giving his money to the family, for two reasons. First, in order to be obedient to the words of the Gospel, "Take heed that you do not give your alms before men," he planned to give his gift late at night so that his identity would remain a secret. (Still today, children are told on Christmas Eve to go to sleep quickly or Saint Nick will not come!)

Secondly, since the man had once been rich and had only recently fallen on bad times, Nicholas did not wish to embarrass him. The saint thought it was best to obey Christ's words: "Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing." So he went at midnight to the man's home, threw a large bag of gold into the house through a window, and fled in the darkness.

Some say the bag landed in a stocking hung by the fire to dry. Whatever the case, the next morning, the father found the bag, discovered the gold coins, and gave thanks to God, not knowing who had given him the money. He then married off his oldest daughter, using the gold to provide her dowry. (Ever since that time, children all over the world have hung up stockings on Christmas Eve, hoping that they will be filled with good things from Saint Nicholas by morning.)

Learning what the father had done, Nicholas prepared another large bag of gold and returned again one night to the man's home. He threw the bag into the house through the same window and fled into the darkness. The next morning, the father found the second bag, discovered the gold coins, and fell on his face in thanksgiving to God; then he married off his second daughter. Now, the father was filled with faith and believed that God would provide the money needed to find a husband for his third daughter.

Because he wished to know who was bringing the gold, the father did not sleep at night, but watched in the hope of catching sight of his secret patron. It was not long before the saint returned, walking very quietly, and again cast a bag of money through the window. The father heard it striking the floor and ran as fast as he could in pursuit of the saint. When he caught up with him, he recognized Nicholas, who was known to all because of his noble parents and the goodness of his life.

The father fell at the feet of the holy priest and kissed them, calling the saint his helper and deliverer and the rescuer of souls. In the darkness of the night, the saint was carrying a pack on his shoulder and almost looked like a peddler himself. But his eyes twinkled, and his cheeks and his nose were red from the cold of the midnight air. There was something about his countenance that brought peace to the man's soul.

Nicholas made the father promise that he would not tell anyone what had happened that night as long as Nicholas remained alive. After speaking to the man at length about things that were profitable to his soul, the saint blessed him, and then vanished into the night. Who knows where else he went and how many other needy people were secretly helped by Saint Nicholas that night?

From this story it is evident what deep sympathy Saint Nicholas had for the poor. It would be impossible to tell of every example of his generosity to beggars, or to count the hungry people he fed, the naked he clothed, or the people in debt he delivered from their creditors.

A Deliverer From Peril

Some time later, our venerable father decided to visit Palestine and venerate the holy places in the land where our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ once walked. While his ship was sailing off the coast of Egypt, Nicholas foresaw that a violent storm was coming, although no one else suspected this. After he warned the crew, at once black clouds appeared in the sky and a violent storm arose, churning up the sea. Everyone was afraid and they all begged Nicholas to rescue them. They cried out, "Unless you pray to God to save us, we will be swallowed up by the sea!"

Encouraging the passengers and crew to put their hope in God, the saint sent up fervent prayers to the Lord. At once the waters became calm, and the passengers were filled with joy. A fair wind filled the sails, and the boat sailed quickly and safely to Alexandria in Egypt. For this reason, and because of other miracles brought about by Saint Nicholas at sea, he was eventually named the patron saint of sailors all over the world.

Eventually Nicholas resumed his journey to the Holy Land. There he visited Golgotha, where Christ God stretched out His most pure hands upon the Cross and was crucified to save the race of man. Then Nicholas visited all the other holy places in and around the city of Jerusalem.

A Shepherd Of His Flock

After his return to Lycia, the saint went to the Monastery of Holy Zion founded by his uncle, Bishop Nicholas. He embraced a life of solitude and silence, thinking he would live in that way until his death, but a voice from heaven came to him and said: "Nicholas, if you wish to receive a crown from Me, labor for the good of others."

As he returned to a life among the people, the saint decided it would be better if he went to a city where nobody knew who he was. The Lord guided him to the city of Myra, the provincial capital in Lycia.

Shortly after Nicholas's arrival, the archbishop of the city died. Although no one in the city knew Nicholas, it was revealed through the prayers of one of the elders of the city that he had been chosen by God to be the new archbishop of the city of Myra. At first, Nicholas refused to accept the rank of archbishop, but in the end he submitted to the persistent requests of the clergy and the people.

Wise and fearless, Nicholas was a true shepherd to his flock. He was meek, forgiving, and humble in spirit, fleeing everything that would call attention to himself. His food and clothing were simple, and he ate only once a day, in the evening. The doors of his house were never shut, because he wanted everyone to feel welcome at his house at any time. He was a father to orphans, generous to those in need, the helper of those who had been wronged, and the encourager of every Christian soul entrusted to his care.

In the year 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian commanded all the citizens of the Roman Empire, which included Asia Minor, to worship him as a god. Christians believed in the One True God and in One God alone, so their conscience would not allow them to obey the Emperor's order. Angered by their stubbornness, Diocletian warned the Christians that they would be thrown in prison if they did not obey his command.

The Emperor carried out his threat, and Saint Nicholas was among those who were imprisoned. But even in prison, he continued to instruct the people in the Christian Faith. For more than five years, Saint Nicholas was confined to a small cell. He suffered from cold, hunger, and thirst, but he never wavered in his beliefs.

In [311], when Diocletian resigned and Constantine came to power, Nicholas was released, and he immediately resumed his duties as Archbishop of Myra. He was present at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325, where he opposed the opinions of the famous heretic, Arius. Bishop Nicholas was a defender of the truth of God and a spirited champion of justice among the people. On two occasions, he saved men from undeserved sentences of death.

Merciful, trustworthy, and loving what is right, Bishop Nicholas walked among the people like an angel of God. People considered him a saint even during his lifetime, and called for his help when they were in torment or distress. He would appear both in dreams and in person to those who called upon him for help, responding speedily whether they were close at hand or far away. Bishop Nicholas's face would shine with light, like the face of Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai. His mere presence among the people brought comfort and joy, peace and goodwill.

In old age, Bishop Nicholas became sick and fell asleep in the Lord after a life full of labor and fruitful toil. He entered into rest on December 6, 343, where he now enjoys eternal happiness in the Kingdom of heaven, continuing to help the faithful on earth by his prayers and miracles and to spread the glory of God.

A Legacy Of Love

By the year 450, churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in honor of Saint Nicholas. By 800, he had come to be recognized as a saint throughout the whole Church, and his memory was celebrated on the day of his repose, December 6.

Over the centuries, Saint Nicholas's popularity grew, and many people in Europe retold the stories that showed his concern for children. Because of his secret generosity, and because his day is close to Christmas, legends grew up about Saint Nicholas bringing gifts to children at Christmas time. This kindly figure was known by a variety of names—Père Noël in France, Father Christmas in England. The Dutch called him Sanct Herr Nicholaas, or Sinter Klaas. Early Dutch settlers in New York (once called New Amsterdam) brought their traditions of Saint Nicholas to America. As American children from other countries tried to pronounce Sinter Klaas, the name was gradually transformed into Santa Claus.

After the Protestant Reformation, many people ceased to honor the saints, but the traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas were too dear to be given up. Instead, they became distorted over time. The old bishop's vestments and crown, jeweled cuffs and shepherd's staff were eventually replaced with the red fur-trimmed suit seen in modern depictions. Clement Moore's poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," cemented the image of the "jolly old elf" with his magical transport firmly in the Victorian mind.

While a chubby, rosy Santa Claus counting up the naughty and nice in his North Pole toy factory may seem a far cry from the humble, ascetic fourth-century bishop of Myra with his secret deeds of charity, we can still see in him some of the essential qualities that endeared Saint Nicholas to so many generations: his love for children, his generosity of spirit, and his ceaseless giving to others—always in the name and for the sake of his beloved Lord Jesus Christ. Let us honor Saint Nicholas as the true saint and the special friend and protector that he is.

Father John Finley works with the Department of Missions and Evangelism of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and is pastor of St. Timothy Church, Lompoc, California.

From Again Magazine, Vol. 23, No. 4, October-December, 2001, p. 13-15,30. Used by permission.

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