The Santa Chronicles: How A Man Named Nicholas became Santa Claus (Part 1)
His name was Nikolaos or Nicholas…St. Nicholas in the Greek Orthodox tradition.
You and I know him better as “St. Nick.”
Around the world he has other names: Sinterklass (Dutch), Kris Kringle (English), Papa Noel (French/Spanish), Weihnachtsmann (German), Grandfather Frost (Russia)…and SANTA CLAUS.
Most of what we know about this “jolly old elf” and his relationship to Christmas is thanks to four significant people or groups: Islamic jihadists, Martin Luther, the Dutch and Irving Berlin.
It’s quite a yuletide tale. And it all began on December 6, 343 A.D. It’s the day Nicholas died and his legend began. I’m going to tell his story in three parts and focus first on the man named NICK.
Nicholas was born into great wealth in Patara, Turkey (280 AD).
He survived the most brutal Christian persecution in history by Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD). This tyrant ordered the arrest and death of church leaders. He wanted all the “scriptures” destroyed and the homes (where churches met) torched. Many Christians who refused to recant had their tongues cut out and were burned alive. It was a terrible, gruesome time to be a Christian.
Thanks to his parents wealth, which Nicholas inherited, he never lived in need.
But his sensitive spirit opened him to the need of others.
He became particularly noted for his generosity to the poor.
But Nick never took credit. He always gave anonymously.
One day he learned of a desperate and bankrupt merchant who was going to lose everything, including his three daughters, to creditors. The merchant wanted to save his girls from being trafficked for sex by marrying them off…but he had no dowry money to pay a suitor’s family.
Nicholas caught wind of the merchant’s great need and, one night near the midnight hour, tossed a bag of money into each girl’s window for their dowry. According to lore, one bag landed in a sock that was drying by the fireplace. Have you ever noticed that older pawn shops often have three balls hung outside or built into their logo? It’s because of Nicholas and this story.
Nick is the patron saint of pawnbrokers who help people get past their hour of need through pawn loans.
After Nicholas died on 343 AD, and he was venerated as a “saint” in the Greek Orthodox faith, a tradition of “midnight gift-giving” (stuffing stockings with presents) emerged on the anniversary of his death (December 6). It’s a tradition that lasted over 1200 years.
Nicholas was also an important church leader.
He was a bishop in Myra, a significant port city in Asia Minor. Initially Nick didn’t want the job. Diocletian had targeted bishops for imprisonment and death. In fact, Nick, as he expected, was soon arrested and jailed, but thankfully a new emperor named Constantine rose to power and in 313 AD ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.
Once freed, the fiery Nicholas took on the pagan Roman culture.
He preached against adultery, homosexuality, prostitution and other sexual sin. His sermons created such a stir in Myra that they tore down an ancient temple to Diana (the fertility goddess). He helped end the Greek Olympics for their bawdy, pagan games…originally performed in the nude for the pleasure of the crowds. He spoke against murder, particularly the Roman practice of killing unwanted babies at birth.
Nicholas was among the bishops who convened at Nicea in 325 AD to deal with heresy.
Reportedly, Nick was so angry at Arian for his heretical view of Jesus that he slapped him! As a result, these church leaders produced the Nicene Creed (which remains a spoken tradition in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches to this day).
Evidently the prayers of Nicholas were miraculous too.
He once prayed for an angry sea to calm…and it did. It’s why he’s known as the patron saint of sailors too. Another time he prayed that merchant ships might remain full of grain, even after they gave up large deposits for his famished people in Myra…and they did.
Nicholas died on December 6, 343 A.D.
Myra soon built a church to honor him.
Seven centuries after that Islamic jihadists invaded Asia Minor. Like Diocletian, they were brutal and barbaric, killing Christians, destroying churches and desecrating the graves of saints. To save Nicholas’ remains, the Myra Christians sent them to Bari, Italy for safe-keeping. In 1087 AD Pope Urban II named a church in Nicholas’ honor (Basilica di San Nicola de Bari).
The Muslim invasion was so bad that the Pope requested help from European kings to intervene.
It was the First Crusade and it eventually saved Europe from falling to Islam.
The story of St. Nicholas was kept alive in the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, but now that his remains were on European soil, the tales of his generosity and Faith began to spread into Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and England.
The irony? If it wasn’t for the Muslim invasion and Nicholas’ remains being moved to Europe, we probably wouldn’t have a St. Nick tradition for Christmas. It’s a story that would’ve been lost to time.
But that didn’t happen. And the legend of St. Nick would evolve in Europe over the next millennium to become Santa Claus.
And that’s where we’ll pick up his story in PART TWO…
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