Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, lived during the tumultuous fourth century, when both false teaching and the Roman Emperor continually assaulted the Church. Fascinating stories swirl around the life of Saint Nicholas, and while we face some difficulty in distinguishing the tall tales from the true tales, they all combine to create the portrait of an inspiring man.
Orphaned when he was young, Nicholas’s wealthy parents left him a small fortune. As Nicholas grew older, he developed into a man after God’s own heart, passionate and compassionate, zealous for truth and mercy. His passion and zeal for truth compelled him to slap Arius the heretic across the face at the Council of Nicea, but his compassion and mercy are the foundation for the more well-known tales of his life. These stories gave rise to Nicholas’s “alter-ego,” Santa Claus.
Santa Claus stands as a centerpiece of the Christmas season and though the feast of Saint Nicholas has passed (December 6th), the Santa frenzy will continue through the holidays. Children around the world will find it hard to sleep, anxiously waiting for him to swoop down the chimney, leaving presents under the tree. But, where did the idea of gifts from jolly ole Saint Nick come from? The tradition stems from an event that vividly displays the “gentler side” of Saint Nicholas.
When not assaulting heretics, Nicholas ministered as a bishop with a true pastor’s heart. One night, while walking through the village where he lived, Nicholas heard a girl crying. He stopped to listen and overheard the girl lamenting the fact that her family was too poor to provide dowries for her and her two sisters. In those days, dowries were given from the father to the suitor and young ladies had little prospect of marriage without one.
Unable to bear the girl’s sadness, Nicholas filled a bag with gold coins and tossed it into the poor family’s house, providing enough for the girl’s dowry. The following two nights, he did the same for the two younger sisters. All three girls were married the following spring, thanks to the mercy and generosity of Bishop Nicholas. The family never knew who gave the money.
Details of the story vary. Some say the bags of coins were thrown down the chimney, giving rise to the idea that Santa Claus comes down the chimney to leave presents. Others suggest that the coins landed in shoes or stockings left by the fireplace to dry, inspiring the practice of putting out stockings or shoes for Santa to fill with gifts.
Some Christians strongly reject the notion of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus having anything to do with Christmas at all and, if he is elevated to some kind of all-knowing, omnipresent superman, then we do have a problem. But, there is a real tendency to not just throw the baby out with the bath water, but to also throw out that baby’s friends, cousins, and extended family as well. Saint Nicholas, the real man, is a good model for how we should treat one another. He is a model of sacrificial love and compassion.