The Legend of Saint Nicholas

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With all the revelry and commercialization surrounding the Christmas holiday, some people forget – or don’t realize – that one of the central figures, Santa Claus, is based on an actual person, St. Nicholas.  Nicholas was born during the third century A.D. in the village of Patara in what is now Turkey.  At the time, though, the area was still part of Greece.  His parents were affluent, but raised him to be a devout Christian, when the ideology was still very much in its infancy and starting to replace the paganism inherent in the Roman Empire.  Nicholas’ parents died when he was very young, however, and he used his inheritance to help those in need.  He dedicated his life to serving God and eventually became the Bishop of Myrna.

But, the Roman Empire still had a firm grip on most of southern Europe, and despite his attention to the poor, Bishop Nicholas fell under the glare of Emperor Diocletian.  Like most of his contemporaries, Diocletian made it a point to persecute Christians.  He tossed Bishop Nicholas into prison, along with many other Christian leaders.  Nicholas was released in A.D. 325 and – under the threat of further persecution and imprisonment – continued his work helping the poor.  He died on December 6, A.D. 343.  He was buried in his church where a unique relic called manna formed in his grave.  Manna was the food that supposedly fell from the sky and onto the Israelites during their 40-year journey the desert.  It became a life-saving sustenance.  It is generally thought to be a cake or bread-like substance that has to be consumed rapidly.  The formation of manna in the grave of Bishop Nicholas fostered a growth of devotion to him.  The anniversary of his death, December 6 (or December 19 in the Julian calendar) became St. Nicholas Day, a day of celebration.

As with many highly-regarded figures of the early Christian era, a number of stories and legends evolved out of the life of Nicholas.  One involves a poor man with three daughters.  At the time, a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value – a dowry.  The larger the dowry, the better chance the young woman would have of finding a good husband.  Without a dowry, though, a woman was unlikely to marry.  This particular poor man’s daughters had no dowries to offer and were destined to be sold into slavery.  But then, on three different occasions, bags of gold appeared in the home of this man and his daughters, thus providing the much-needed dowries.  The bags of gold supposedly were tossed through an open window and landed in stockings or shoes left before a fire to dry.  This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.  Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold.  That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.

Another story involves the townspeople of Myra who were celebrating Nicholas on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from nearby Crete arrived.  They purloined treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas and, as they were leaving, also snatched a young boy, Basilios, to turn into a slave.  The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer.  For the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup.  Basilios’ parents were devastated by the loss of their only child.  As the next St. Nicholas’ feast day approached, Basilios’ mother decided not to join in the festivities, as it was now a day of tragedy.  However, she was persuaded to have a simple observance at home – with quiet prayers for Basilios’ safekeeping.  Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks serving the emir, he was suddenly taken away by a mysterious figure who turned out to be St. Nicholas.  Nicholas blessed the terrified boy and set him down at his home back in Myra.  Thus was born the legend of St. Nicholas as a protectorate of children.

Sailors eventually adopted Nicholas as their patron saint because of a story that he appeared during a storm to rescue a ship that was sinking.  Mariners began praying to Nicholas for guidance at the outset of their voyages.  In the 6th century A.D., Emperor Justinian I built a church honoring Nicholas in Constantinople.

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By the 12th century A.D., Saint Nicholas’ popularity began to spread throughout Europe, just as Christianity began to rise in prominence.  Churches across the region adopted his name.  He became especially well-regarded in Russia.  Viking explorers dedicated their church on Greenland to him.  When Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now Haiti on December 6, 1492, he named a port for Nicholas.  Later, in Florida, early Spanish settlers named a settlement for St. Nicholas; it’s now Jacksonville.

That’s why Santa Claus is often called “St. Nick.”  But, how did the Santa Claus character develop?  One theory is that the transformation first occurred in the Netherlands where the story of a saint who rescued three poor girls from a life of prostitution by just giving them bags of gold proved appealing.  This somehow became a man, Sinterklaas, who gave gifts without reservation, while attired in a green coat.  But, the growing enigma of Sinterklaas also coincided with the Nordic god Odin who traversed the skies on a horse.  Dutch immigrants took the Sinterklaas character with them to the Americas. In 1773, some New Yorkers formed the Sons of St. Nicholas, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas.

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers began honoring their colony’s Dutch roots.  John Pintard, the influential patriot who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city.  In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to St. Nicholas whom he portrayed as a chubby Dutchman with a clay pipe.

The New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810.  Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of Nicholas for the occasion.  Anderson depicted Nicholas as a man bearing gifts with children’s treats in stockings hanging above a fireplace.  The accompanying poem ends, “Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend!  To serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I’ll serve you ever while I live.”

More changes occurred.  Sinterklaas’ green coat became red, and in 1821, the first lithographed book in the U.S., Children’s Friend, featured “Sante Claus” arriving from the north in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.  The poem and illustrations (whose author is unknown) re-shaped the Santa Claus image from a saint into a happy old man who rewarded children for their good behavior.

Ironically, while Nicholas was considered a saint long before the Roman Catholic Church began formal canonizations beginning around A.D. 1100, the Church never officially canonized Nicholas.  But, in 1969, when the Roman Catholic Church removed several saints from its roster, it left Nicholas alone.  The Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6, became optional, not obligatory, under Roman Catholic law.

Whether or not you adhere to Christian ideology, one critical message can be learned from Nicholas: good behavior is always rewarded and bad behavior is punished.  More importantly, though, it’s essential to care for those in need, which is why the Christmas season in the Western World is often viewed as a time of good will and hopes for peace.  That may not happen in our convoluted and busy world, with war on every continent and holiday
shopping deals in every city.  But, it’s still a pleasant and worthwhile practice and must be given more consideration and respect.

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