With all of the holiday trappings rolling out earlier and earlier each year, it is refreshing to have at least one aspect of the “holiday season” that legitimately does come early. December sixth is the annual commemoration of one of the most beloved saints associated with Christmas, Saint Nicholas. Of course, St. Nicholas is probably one of the best known saints in all of Christianity. What child does not remember this legendary account of “Old St. Nick”?
“He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;”
Those lines are taken from the poem commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” which was originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and first published in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore. One critic has gone so far as to assert that this poem is “arguably the best-known verses ever written in America.” This poem has defined St. Nicholas for the almost two hundred years since its publication and has shaped the modern conception of the festive figure. Unfortunately, it is almost entirely false.
Unlike many saints who are more legend than history, St. Nicholas is a remarkably well-documented figure. Nicholas was born around 270AD in the city of Patara in Asia Minor or what would today be called Turkey. His Christian parents died while he was still and he was raised by his uncle who continued his Christian upbringing. By 330AD Nicholas had been consecrated as the bishop of the city of Myra in Asia Minor.
Legends regarding the saint abound. One of the most famous legends centers around a poor single father with three daughters. Having no dowry for his daughters, the father was unable to secure a marriage for his children. At that time, this would have meant a life of poverty and most likely prostitution or slavery. Knowing the father’s plight, St. Nicholas came by night and, heeding our Lord’s directions to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” (St. Matthew 6:3) anonymously dropped three bags of gold into the father’s home. The most likely account tells that the money was dropped into the stockings of the three daughters which had been hung out by the window to dry. This began the tradition of St. Nicholas being a great giver of gifts.
In 325AD, one of the most momentous events in the history of the Church took place. The newly converted Emperor Constantine was greatly distressed at the division in the Church caused by the Heretic Arius. In order to deal with crisis, the Emperor summoned all of the bishops in the entire Church to gather together in the town of Nicaea to settle the matter. Being a bishop at the time of the council and being especially close to the city, St. Nicholas eagerly attended the convocation hoping to end the division in the Church. During one of the meetings, the heretic Arius was called to stand before the convened council and present a defense of his position. During his address, Arius continued to assert that Jesus was not God, not divine, not part of the Holy Trinity, and was just a creature created by God like everyone else. St. Nicholas was so overcome with anger at the assault on the dignity of his Lord which he was being forced to endure that finally he could stand it no more. The saint stood up, approached the heretic Arius, and punched him right in the face! Yes, it is true. The “jolly old elf” decked a heretic at a council of bishop!
Not surprisingly, no one responded well to some old man hauling off and starting a brawl at such a dignified convention. The other bishops stripped Nicholas of his episcopal regalia and threw him in prison since this was, after all, an imperial council. According to the legends, Nicholas had a vision of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother that night. Jesus presented St. Nicholas with the Scriptures and the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed the saint in his bishop’s robes once again. When the jailer came to check on Nicholas in the morning, he found the saint sitting quietly in all of his episcopal regalia quietly reading the Gospel. Upon hearing this miracle, the Emperor Constantine ordered Nicholas released and reinstated.
Later on, during the long and tedious proceedings of the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas, as one might expect from a gentleman practically in his seventies, dozed off during one of the sessions. While he was asleep, the Lord granted Nicholas a vision of a ship in great distress in a terrible storm. St. Nicholas raised his hands in intercession and prayer for the sailors and the Lord calmed the storm once more sparing the distressed sailors. When Nicholas awoke, one of his younger colleagues, observing the saint awakening, joked with the old man saying, “So much has happened while you slept. We have missed you, our brother.” The saint replied, “Yes, indeed. A ship has been saved and many sailors rescued.” Of course, not knowing what had transpired in the saint’s vision, the younger bishop assumed that Nicholas spoke of the Church and her believers. Based on this legend, St. Nicholas became a patron of sailors as well as children and orphans.
As the years went by and legends of St. Nicholas spread from one region to the next, Saint Nicholas became the Dutch Sinter Klaas and, ultimately, Santa Claus. Millions of children receive gifts from “Santa” each year and dozens of movies have been made featuring a white-haired overweight old man who bears little or no resemblance to a true hero of the faith. I encourage everyone to visit The St. Nicholas Center this week and look for ways to celebrate the feast of this incredible saint. Every St. Nicholas day my children awake to find a small gift in our fireplace. Usually it is a toy manger scene or some other religious toy like a Noah’s Ark. We will put in the “VegieTales: St. Nicholas: a story of Joyful Giving” DVD and watch it repeatedly during the day. God willing, in years to come, my children will smile knowingly when they see the jolly old elf in the red suit with white fur. They will know that he was a man who dedicated his life to serving Jesus Christ and caring for the poor and underprivileged. They will also know that the one thing he could never tolerate was the Lord being defamed by those who claimed to represent Him. May we take the true saint as an model for our own life and follow the example which he has already set for us.
Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.