Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra–6 December
Nicholas is known as being the basis of the “Santa Claus” or “Father Christmas” character in the Anglophone world, and their equivalents in many other northern European cultures associated Advent/Christmastide gift-giving traditions.
Nicholas was born to a wealthy Greek family in 3rd-century Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and was devout even at an early age. When his parents died, he was raised by his uncle, who was bishop of Patara, a town on the southwestern coast of what is now Turkey. Nicholas’s uncle ordained him as a priest when he was a young man. In his 30s, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and came back with even greater resolve to serve the Faith. He became bishop of Myra–present-day Demre, Turkey–in his late 40s. Nicholas famously attended the Council of Nicaea, where he stood firm for the orthodox, catholic faith and was a signatory of its most cogent statement, the Nicene Creed. Legend has it that he punched out the heretic Arius at the Council, though this may simply be legend.
Legends surround Nicholas, and the story of his punching out Arius makes sense in these contexts. It seems he was well known throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and never one to back down from a challenge to orthodoxy and who tirelessly worked for Christian mercy and justice. The stories about Nicholas range from legendary, extraordinary feats–raising murdered people from the dead–to the more pedestrian care for poor children. The tale we know most famously about him, and the tale that gives us our Santa Claus stories, is how he surreptitiously provided gold to a proud, but poor father who could not afford a dowry for his three daughters, and thus feared them being forced to become prostitutes. Nicholas is said to have dropped small golden balls down the man’s chimney–thus Santa’s chimney-going, and the tradition of giving oranges around Christmas–to give the man the money he needed to pay the dowries, and also to save the man the humiliation of publicly accepting charity. There are many variations of that story as well.
Like many saints from ancient times, it is quite difficult to know what is factual and what his legendary in the life of Nicholas, especially because of the conflicting accounts often given. But we can glean several things from what we do know, and what the stories all point to: Nicholas was a devout man who unshakably believed the faith once given to the saints, and was tireless in defending it. He was devoted to emulating the life of Our Lord, giving to and caring for the poor and disenfranchised. Let us all take heart and example from him in these things, and may his life and faithful witness inspire us all–especially as we move through this season of Advent.
Readings and Prayer:
Almighty God, who in thy love didst give to thy servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray thee, that thy 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 liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN.