A Christmas Life: The Real Saint Nicholas

On the day Christians celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas, a look at the history and hagiography surrounding his life can teach us a lot about what it means to live a Christmas life…

Titus 2:11-14

The little seaside town of Demre, in Turkey, isn’t exactly the North Pole. It rarely snows there. Palm trees and orange groves dot the landscape. You won’t hear sleigh bells here, just the sound of the Muslim call to prayer from the minarets of the town mosques. No reindeer live here, and elves are extremely rare. NORAD won’t paying much attention to Demre this Christmas Eve, and most folks wrapping presents to put under the tree won’t give it a thought, either. In fact, virtually no one living in Demre celebrates Christmas, and yet this little town is the second most important town in the world next to Bethlehem when it comes to Christmas

See, Demre is the hometown of the original Saint Nicholas, who was born near there sometime in the late third century AD. There’s an old 8th century Church of St. Nicholas there that once housed the saint’s bones, and even though it is only active as a church one day a year (St. Nicholas Day, December 6), tourists come from around the world to see the birthplace of the one most of them know as Santa Claus.

Of course, the town of Demre cashes in on these interested tourists. You can buy Santa Claus-themed merchandise here that’s as plentiful as any you’d find in, say, Santa Claus, Indiana—everything from key chains, to icons, to Santa earrings.

If you traveled to Demre between 1981 and 2000, you would have seen a statue of Saint Nicholas dressed as Father Christmas—a figure in a hooded robe carrying a sack of toys and surrounded by children. In 2000, Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky presented Demre with a bronze statue of an Eastern Orthodox Saint Nicholas, dressed in the vestments of a Christian bishop and standing atop a globe. The statue stood prominently right in the middle of the town square, which was unusual for a country that is nearly 100% Muslim.

demre_santa_claus_smallFive years later, the town replaced this statue with one of an American style Santa Claus with a bell in his right hand, making him look like an overly zealous Salvation Army ringer. The plaster of Paris statue was designed to appeal to international tourists by making Santa more recognizable—more like the image of Santa developed by Coca Cola in the early 20th century—a Santa that’s less a religious figure and more the patron saint of consumerism.

So, which one of these is the real Saint Nicholas? What picture emerges when we cut through all the legend and commercialism? If Demre is confused, then we are certainly no less so. On Christmas Eve, millions of people will recite famous Clement Moore poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka The Night Before Christmas) as a bedtime story for anxious children all tucked in their beds, with visions of X-boxes and iPods dancing in their heads. Well, there’s a very different story that needs to be told—a story of a man whose whole life was focused on following the one born in a manger.

The story begins around the year 260AD in the little village of Patara, just a few miles from the town of Demre (which was called Myra at the time). The apostle Paul had passed through Myra 200 years before as a prisoner on his way to Rome  and he very likely preached there. A Christian church was planted in Myra sometime
after Paul’s visit, and was still in place when Nicholas was born.

Nicholas’ parents were Christians, and as a child he heard the stories of the Bible—he sang the Psalms in worship and heard the good news about Jesus—the stories of his birth in Bethlehem, his teaching and healing, his death on a cross and his resurrection from the dead. The church would have met in a large home and not a separate building, and Nicholas would have heard the Scriptures read by the elders and shared in holy communion there each week. Sometimes the church would meet in the town graveyard to remind themselves of the promise of Easter and the resurrection.

This is not church as we experience it tonight, however. Being a Christian in Nicholas’ day would have been a dangerous proposition. Just a few years before he was born, several members of the church in Myra were put to death by Roman authorities for refusing to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Nicholas’ family would have reminded him of this danger, but they would also remind him that suffering persecution was, as Peter put it, a chance to “participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:13).

Nicholas’ name in Greek meant “victory for the people,” and from the very beginning he seemed to look and act like a saint. He had a strong moral compass and avoided all the usual temptations of young people in Roman society—temptations of money, sex, and grabbing for political power. According to his 8th century biographer, Michael the Archimandrite, “He never strayed far from the church and, like a nest to a dove the church was to him a refreshment and a comfort. His mind was illuminated by the teachings, and day by day he grew towards a pure and gentle compassion.”

When Nicholas was a teenager, tragedy struck when both his parents died in an epidemic of plague that swept through the region of Lycia in the mid-third century. Nicholas was left alone, but not without help. His parents had apparently been wealthy, probably merchants who plied their trade through the ships coming in and out of the port of Myra. So they left Nicholas with a large inheritance of money to do with as he pleased. Can you imagine being a teenager with that kind of cash?

Well, rather than take the usual route of squandering the money, Nicholas relied on the faith he had received and, according to Michael, “he asked God that he might dispose of his life and his assets in accordance with [God’s] will. He would have remembered the words of Jesus about wealth—about giving to those in need and holding money loosely. He would have certainly recalled Jesus words to a rich young man who was likely in Nicholas’ very situation: “Go sell your possessions and give to the poor,” Jesus had said to the rich man, “and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

It was customary in Roman society for people to take care of their own families, but not to worry about anyone else. The early Christians shocked Roman sensibilities when they insisted on caring for anyone in need—including societal outcasts like prisoners, widows, and orphans. Nicholas took Jesus’ call seriously, which led him to the first and most famous act of his life.

In Patara there was a once-wealthy man who had lost everything. People didn’t have savings accounts or retirement plans, so a lost ship of merchandise or a bad crop could completely ruin a small family. The man had three daughters, and he became so desperate that he resolved to sell each of them one by one into slavery, which, at the time, often meant sex slavery. The problem was that no one would marry these girls because of their poverty and the father’s inability to provide a dowry, so selling the daughters was the only option left—a common practice in the Roman world.

St-nicholas-and-the-three-gold-balls-from-the-predella-of-the-quaratesi-triptych-from-sanNicholas heard of the family’s plight. One night, he took some of the gold his parents had left him, tied it in a small sack, and threw it through the open window of the family’s home. Some accounts say he actually
threw the sack down the chimney and the gold landed in the girls’ stockings, which were hung by the fire to dry, though those are likely later additions. Michael describes what happened next:

“When daylight came, the man got up from bed and found in the middle of the house a pile of money. He could not hold back his tears…He gave thanks to God but also tried to understand the meaning of this good
fortune. Deciding to accept the gift as if it had been given by God, the father of the girls took the serendipitously found gold and noticed that the sum corresponded to the amount of money needed for a dowry. Without delay, he adorned the bridal chamber of his oldest daughter. And so his life once again became good, full of joy and peace of mind, thanks to the intervention of the holy Nicholas who had created a way for his daughter to marry.”

Seeing what an effect the gift had had on the family, Nicholas returned two more nights and tossed two more anonymous bags of gold through the open window for the other two daughters. The third time, the father of the girls was waiting in the dark to see who was committing these acts of lavish generosity. When the third bag of gold hit the floor, the man ran outside and found Nicholas and said to him, “If it were not for your goodness, which was stirred up by our Lord Jesus Christ, I have long since consigned my
life to ruin and shame.” Nicholas swore the man to secrecy about what he had done, and yet, who could not tell this story eventually?

It’s difficult to express the uniqueness of this act in Nicholas’ time. In those days, in a culture of patronage, anonymous giving simply was not done. Usually, if a wealthy benefactor helped someone, the receiver would be obligated for life (kind of like the Godfather – someday you will do a service for me…). What Nicholas did was completely novel and it had a tremendous impact on the Christian communities who first heard the story. It became the story that identified Nicholas and made him one of the most popular saints in Christian history.

Notice that there’s nothing really magical about this story—no reindeer, no toys, no taking into account who is naughty or nice. It’s simply an act of sacrificial kindness toward someone in need—quite a different story than the one we celebrate in our Christmas specials and shopping malls. Santa Claus, as we know him, is the product of retailers who use him to sell their wares to those who can afford to stack presents under the tree that most of us don’t really need. The real Saint Nicholas was the product of a relationship with Christ, who gave everything away for those who had nothing. No one can do what the magical Santa does. Everyone can do what Nicholas did.

The story doesn’t stop there, however. Nicholas went on to participate in some of the most important events in Christian history. While Nicholas was still a young man, a great persecution of Christians took place under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who needed a scapegoat for the Empire’s precarious economic situation. Nicholas may have been studying for the priesthood when a crisis occurred there in Myra—every bishop (or overseer) of the church there had been imprisoned or killed, one after the other. One night in the year 295, the senior bishops of the area gathered to pray through the night for God to lead them to the person they could ordain as the next bishop of Myra. One of the bishops received a vision, where God told him to go with the others to the house of God and wait there for the first person to walk through the door in the morning. His name will be Nicholas.

MartyrsSure enough, Nicholas was the first to cross the threshold of the church that morning. Nicholas became one of the youngest bishops ever in the church—about the same age as Jesus when he started his public ministry. The bishop was both a man of the people and a man of God, executing the ministries of the church in the example of Christ. Nicholas fit the bill perfectly, and while being ordained a bishop was a huge honor for someone so young, it would not be easy.

No sooner had Nicholas been ordained as bishop than he was arrested on religious charges, imprisoned without trial, and was beaten and tortured. A common torture dealt to Christian prisoners was to blind their right eyes and cut the sinews of their left ankles. Nicholas born the scars of holding to his faith, even though he escaped becoming a martyr. For the majority of his tenure as Bishop of Myra, Christians were a hated minority, a target for angry mobs and the whims of the emperor. Still, Nicholas was steadfast in his ministry with the people, despite the scars he carried in his
own body.

When the emperor Constantine took over in the early 4th century, Christianity went almost overnight from being a persecuted minority to the religion of the empire. He called together a great council to standardize the church’s doctrines and Nicholas was part of the 300 or so bishops who gathered for the discussion and debate. It must have been a sight—a gathering of old bishops, many of them missing eyes and limping, some missing limbs—looking more like a gathering of pirates than a collection of religious leaders. The debates were intense, the major question being whether Jesus was
actually God in the flesh, the same substance as God, or only a being “like” God. Nicholas believed what John’s Gospel said about Jesus, that Jesus, the Word was with God and was God—the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.

Nicholas and ariusHe argued fiercely for this biblical position and, according to some sources, even slapped the heretic bishop Arius across the face in a fit of righteous rage. Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice! He apologized, of
course, but his zeal for Christ was always evident.

The stories of Nicholas’ Christian deeds of justice and compassion are myriad. When back in Myra, he heard of some men who were falsely accused of a crime and were about to be beheaded. He advocated on their behalf and, acting as their advocate, got them acquitted because of his reputation as an honest bishop. For this reason, the saint who would be Santa Claus became the patron saint of prisoners.  In another instance, Nicholas went to the emperor to plead the case of his people who were under an undue burden of taxes, and got them lowered. There are lots of stories like this concerning Nicholas’ passion for his people. Every one of them reveals that he lived up to his name, “victory for the people.”

When Nicholas died some time in the 330s, he was buried in Myra, but relic seekers managed to take his bones to various places around the world, meaning only parts of Santa Claus actually made it all over the world! Today, most of his remains rest in Bari, Italy, where anthropologists recently constructed what his face might have looked like—not a bit like our Santa Claus, but the same kind of face as the people he served.

NICHOLAS ICONThere are lots of stories about Saint Nicholas, some of which are true, most of which are the fanciful distortions of legend. Our version of Santa Claus is actually a Scandinavian legend loosely based on the
real Saint Nicholas, but many generations removed from the real thing. I don’t know about you, but I find the real story to be the most compelling—the story of a Christmas life, one lived not just once a year, but all the time. A life that is willing to sacrifice, to suffer, to give oneself fully to the work of Christ. It’s a giving life more than a receiving life. It’s the kind of life that Jesus himself would live and invites us to follow him in living ourselves.

Paul’s letter to Titus describes that kind of Christmas life. “For the grace of God has appeared,” says Paul. The Word of God became flesh in the form of a baby in a manger, the one who came to save us all. This grace, this gift of God is about “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.” We don’t merely celebrate the gift of God at Christmas. Like Nicholas, we go out and make that gift a reality. We renounce dependence on the collection of stuff, the indulgence of ourselves and, instead, live lives that are worthy of Christ. Paul goes on to say that Christ will return again—a second Advent—and when he returns, what will he find us doing? Will we be sitting on piles of presents, or will we be silently and secretly changing the lives of people who are in desperate need?

Indeed, says Paul, that’s what the gift of Jesus is all about. “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” We are not simply to “be good for goodness sake,” but for the sake of Christ, whose goodness changes the world.

Zealous for good deeds! You want the spirit of Christmas? That’s it. It’s not about us. Christmas is not your birthday. It’s about being zealous to do what Christ has done—not just during the holiday season, but
every day. Can we retrain ourselves to move away from consumption and toward generosity? Can we sacrifice a few more toys so that someone who is desperate
can survive? Can we stand up for those who are broken, imprisoned, poor, and marginalized? Can we focus on “victory for the people” over poverty, sin, and death? Rather than teaching your kids to be good because Santa is coming or there’s some “elf on the shelf” watching their every move (a holiday version of extortion? But I digress…), teach them the way of Jesus and the example of the real St. Nicholas—to be good for the sake of Christ. That’s a real Christmas life, my friends. Anything else is just a caricature.

What if we made it a goal to represent this Saint Nicholas with our giving to Christ? What if, instead of entering the fray at the mall, we all decided to try and help lift one family out of poverty? What if instead of spending all our time visiting relatives we chose instead to visit someone in prison, or spent time talking to that homeless man on the street? I’m guessing that Christmas would start to feel a lot different—and maybe even honor the Christ child more than any sale or full stocking ever could.

Demre new st nicholasIn 2008, the town of Myra replaced the Coca Cola Santa with yet another statue—this one of a Saint Nicholas with Turkish features—a trimmed beard, a patterned jacket, a round Seljuk styled cap or boerk, and he carries on his shoulders not a sack of goodies, but a young child—children were the beneficiaries of many of his acts of kindness. Behind him appears a slightly older boy dressed in a simple tunic. He looks like a common man—someone just like us, someone who could be fully devoted to Christ. We can do extraordinary things if we devote our lives to the manger born King. On Christmas, we just don’t celebrate a holiday, we remember the invitation of Christ, who wants to be born in us—to change us so that we can join him in changing the world for the sake of his kingdom. Will you follow him?

As you get ready for bed on Christmas Eve, I hope you will remember the story of this Saint Nicholas—the story of one who gave his life completely to Christ. And then, may you begin living his style of Christmas life
every day!


English, Adam. The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra. Baylor University Press, 2012. (BTW, I highly recommend this book!)







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