Thursday, December 6, 2007

Nicholas of Myra: The Real Santa Claus

Today we commemorate the blessed Nicholas, Bishop of Myra – the real Santa Claus. Here’s what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about him:

Very little is known about the life of Nicholas, except that he suffered torture and imprisonment during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. It is possible that he was one of the bishops attending the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. He was honored as a saint in Constantinople in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian. His veneration became immensely popular in the West after the supposed removal of his body to Bari, Italy, in the late eleventh century. In England almost 400 churches were dedicated to him.

Nicholas is famed as the traditional patron of seafarers and sailors, and, more especially, of children. As a bearer of gifts to children, his name was brought to America by the Dutch colonists in New York, form whom he is popularly known as Santa Claus [Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 [Church Publishing Inc., 2006), p. 96].

There’s a truly wonderful website for the St. Nicholas Center that has lots of ideas for how to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Nicholas with worship, activities, art, crafts, recipes, and more. As we continue our journey through the Advent season of waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, this site opens up a whole world of ways to teach kids (and adults) about how we can live our faith as Christians during one of the most frenetic, self-absorbed, and consumer-driven times of the year.

Here’s what the St. Nicholas Center website says about this saint:

As Bishop of Myra, Nicholas lived the qualities that caused his fame and popularity to spread throughout the Christian world. His vigorous actions on behalf of his people and in defense of the Christian faith reveal a man who lived his convictions. Nicholas was not timid—he did what was necessary and was not easily intimidated by others' power and position. His concern for the welfare of his flock and his stand for orthodox belief earned him respect as a model for bishops and a defender of the faith.

There are many stories and legends about Nicholas. Here are a couple taken from the St. Nicholas Center website:

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a . The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the 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. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.

One of the oldest stories showing St. Nicholas as a protector of children takes place long after his death. The townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer, as not knowing the language, Basilios would not understand what the king said to those around him. So, for the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios' parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, 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 whisked up and away. St. Nicholas appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup. This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting children—which became his primary role in the West.


There are many more stories and legends about this great saint of the Church here. You can also read the history of how St. Nicholas became “a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for merry holiday festivity and commercial activity” here.

The good folks over at the St. Nicholas Center get it right: "Presenting St. Nicholas as the Christian saint he is, provides a corrective to an over-emphasis on the acquisitive, materialistic aspects of Christmas celebration."



Collect for Nicholas, Bishop of Myra
Almighty God, in your love you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both 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, for ever and ever. Amen.

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