Well, if the bright lights and the shiny wrapping paper are any indication, it’s Christmastime, and it’s difficult to talk about Christmas, without someone mentioning… Santa Claus. The beloved mythical character that rewards children for being good. However, did you know that Ol’ Saint Nick… was actually a real person? And not only was he real, but he loved the Lord, and his story is a LOT more dramatic than the one about a jolly toymaker.
A Greek man known as Nikolaos of Myra, he was born around 270AD, on the coast of what is now modern-day Turkey, but back then, was part of the Roman Empire. As the son of one of the richest families in the town, life should have been good for young Nikolaos, until both of his parents suddenly died, leaving him orphaned as a young man, with nothing to comfort him but the money they left behind. For most young men, that money would have been quickly spent drowning their sorrows, but Nikolaos had other plans. Myra was home to a large population of the desperately poor, and he had been raised hearing the commands of Christ to always give to the poor and needy. So Nikolaos decided that he may have lost his family, but other families needed the money more than he did.
Joining the local church, Nikolaos became famous for his charity, giving away nearly all of his worldly wealth in dramatic fashion, and tales of Nick riding to the rescue of a family in need have survived down through the ages, the most famous being when he secretly placed bags of gold in the shoes of a poor family while they slept, saving their daughters from being sold into slavery. This would later become the inspiration for Christmas stockings, remembering the gifts that he gave to help others. It wasn’t long before his devotion to both God and to people in need saw Nikolaos, now known by the Latin name of Nicholas, raised up to be the Bishop of Myra, the town he grew up in.
For most people, the story of St. Nick ends with the presents, but the real-life Nicholas still had a LOT more to do.
You see, he became a bishop at the WORST possible time to be one… during the greatest persecution of Christians in Roman history. Emperor Diocletian was convinced that Christians were a threat to the Roman Empire, and began a violent suppression wherever he found them. Nicholas, given the choice of recanting Christ or going to prison, chose prison, and spent several long years in chains for the crime of loving God. It was said at the time the prisons were so full of priests and bishops, that there was no room for regular criminals!
Luckily for both Nicholas and Christians everywhere, Diocletian soon passed away, and was replaced by Constantine the Great, who was not only a Christian himself, but wanted to bring bishops together from all over the world to hammer out a common creed, or statement of faith. The reason this was so important was that, at the time, different movements had sprung up preaching a gospel that contradicted what Jesus had said, and people didn’t know what to think. One man in particular, named Arius, was claiming that Jesus was not actually God. And so, at the famous Council of Nicaea, church leaders from all over the Empire gathered and debated to decide things once and for all. And where was Nicholas? Well, one story says he was not only there, but that he got SO angry with a follower of Arius for denying the divinity of Christ, that he started a fist fight in the middle of the conference.
That’s right…. the “jolly old elf” actually smacked somebody upside the head for disrespecting the Son of God.
Nicholas returned to Myra, continuing to be a champion of the gospel and giving money to the poor. After his death, he was eventually canonized by the Catholic church as a saint, and was buried in Italy. People began celebrating his memory in early December by giving each other small gifts, and over the centuries, as it mixed and mingled with the Yuletide traditions of different countries. As time passed, the memory of Nikolaos evolved into the rolly-poly Saint Nick character we know today.
So it’s true! He was real, but you can’t tell his story, his real story, without also telling the story of Christ.