Researching the life of St. Nicholas presents a challenge – he seems destined to be obscured by legend, even in the history books. But even if the facts are a bit murky, there are some things we know with relative certainty.
We first encounter Nicholas as a compassionate young man in 4th century Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Both of his parents had passed away, leaving the grief-stricken youth a substantial inheritance. Nicholas decided the money would go to charity.
It wasn’t long after this decision that he encountered a family in need. The father had lost his daughters’ dowries, and in those days this meant the three women had no hope for marriage. As a last resort, the father decided to sell them into prostitution.
When Nicholas heard of the family’s plight, and the father’s horrific solution, he did something very much in the spirit of Santa Claus: He secretly visited their home by night, throwing a bag of gold coins through the family’s window. He repeated his covert act of charity three times, resulting in the marriages of all three sisters. During his third visit, the father discovered his identity and expressed deep gratitude for his kindness.
St. Nicholas went on to assist many others, often anonymously. His generous and creative commitment to the needy gave rise to many unconfirmed legends and miracles over the centuries, but one fact is known for certain: his virtue resulted in his appointment as Bishop of Myra.
Defender of the Faith
Though less magical sounding, Nicholas’ role as Bishop gives us even greater reason to associate this Saint with Christmas.
That’s because Nicholas’ life unfolded during a pivotal era of Christendom. After years of terrible persecution, the rise of Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. brought legal acceptance of Christianity. Legend has it that Bishop Nicholas was among the many Christians who endured imprisonment and torture for the faith until Constantine freed him.
But the joys of freedom were short-lived because the Church faced a threat from within: A heresy called Arianism was spreading confusion among the faithful.
Arianism, named after its promoter Arius, denied Christianity’s central doctrine of the Trinity by claiming that while Jesus was the Son of God, the Son was not one (united in essence, nature, or substance) with the Father. In other words, Arius claimed Jesus Christ was not the eternal Word made flesh (John 1: 14), relegating Him to a lesser status — a sort of “secondary god.”
St. Nicholas was one of the defenders of the true Gospel, clarifying Jesus’ identity against Arius’ confusing teachings. Some stories even claim Bishop Nicholas boldly confronted Arius at the historic Council of Nicea (although there are no official records of Nicholas’ presence at the Council.)
Thanks to the devotion of Christians like St. Nicholas, St. Athanasius, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, Arianism eventually died out. But had it prevailed, we could not celebrate the true miracle of Christmas: the Incarnation, the Word made Flesh, realized in the birth of Jesus Christ. And without fully understanding Christmas we ultimately would have lost the meaning of the Cross, too.
When Did St. Nick become “Santa Claus”?
When did St. Nick trade in the Bishop’s miter for a fuzzy, red hat? Not for a long time. Bishop Nicholas’ generosity and devotion endeared him to the masses. After his death, churches were named after him, and artists portrayed him in their works, spreading his popularity throughout the Mediterranean, Europe and Asia. Over time, St. Nick’s legacy was associated with love of children and gift-giving, but the widespread lore kept much of the original Christian context for centuries.
“Santa Claus” is actually a very modern and very American version of the Saint. It wasn’t until Dutch and German settlers brought their magical tales of Sankt Niklaus (German) and Sinterklaas (Dutch) to the New World that St. Nick began to look a little like Santa. From there, St. Nicholas still didn’t take on his plump, elfin appearance or slide down chimney’s until the early 1800’s thanks to a satirical work called Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving.
In 1823, the red-suited image of an elf transported by flying reindeer finally solidified thanks to the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (later renamed “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) penned by New Yorker, Clement Clark Moore. Popular culture and marketing by companies like Coca-Cola further ingrained the icon into American tradition.
While 4th century Christians would not recognize the modern Santa, it’s hard to imagine a better candidate for the job than a man who helped preserve the real meaning of Christmas. Bishop Nicholas exemplified the Christian life by giving his all to Christ and to those in need. Hopefully, in the midst of all the glittery commercialism surrounding our modern holiday celebrations, we’ll be able to prepare for Christmas ’15 in a way that genuinely reflects the spirit of (the real) St. Nick.