St. Nicholas: The Fighting Bishop Who Became Santa Claus
Everyone knows who Santa Claus is. But centuries before he became the jolly sleigh-riding elf we all love, St. Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey who performed miracles, got into fisticuffs with a heretic, and, of course, gave out presents. And we can all continue to learn from and be inspired by this unique saint.
Today (Dec. 6) is the feast of St. Nicholas, still a very important feast for Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox Christians. He was bishop of Myra in Turkey. He was born to rich, pious parents, although they died while he was still young. During the harsh persecutions of Roman Emperor Diocletian he confessed his Christian faith but, unlike so many other Christians of that era, survived (though he was put in jail). Nicholas was still quite well-off when he was free, but he chose to donate his wealth to the poor.
In one instance, Nicholas saved three poor girls from prostitution and/or slavery by throwing bags of gold in their window on three separate occasions, thus providing dowries so they could be married instead of enslaved. On the third night, when the father caught Nicholas at his secretive charity, the bag of gold Nicholas tossed in is said to have landed in a stocking drying before the fire. Yes, that’s the story that inspired the hanging of stockings which St. Nicholas still fills with presents today! Tradition also holds that the three golden balls hung outside a pawnbroker’s were based off this story.
Of course, not all of Nicholas’s help was monetary. He is said to have raised to life again children who had been murdered and pickled in a brine-tub. St. Nicholas was always there for the kids!
Beyond the multiple miracles Nicholas performed during his lifetime, including saving a ship caught in a storm by praying, we also have tales of Nicholas’s miracles after his death. That’s even before the old traditions in many countries including Poland, Russia, Ukraine, England, and Germany labeled him a Christmas-tide bringer of gifts. For instance, it is said that during one year’s celebration of Nicholas’s feast day in Myra, pirates attacked, snatching a young boy who was subsequently made the cupbearer of his captors’ ruler. On the next St. Nicholas day, the bishop appeared to the boy, blessed him, and miraculously brought him back home again to his parents! Just like with the story of the murdered boys above, it seems St. Nicholas has always been a special friend of children.
But there are also plenty of lessons we can learn from St. Nicholas in our own lives. For example, the story of the bags of gold reminds us to give alms. There are numerous Bible passages emphasizing the importance of caring for the poor and sick in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, Jesus lists works of mercy to the needy as being the divider between the “sheep” who go to Heaven and the “goats” who go to Hell (see Matt. 25). While Jesus also urges his followers to prayer and fasting too, emphasizing the importance of making God and your relationship with Him the center of your life, the relationship we have with God should then translate into charity toward others, as it did in the life of St. Nicholas.
If faith and love are true and not mere words, then they must and will turn into action. That brings us to the lesson from the second story, about the murdered children St. Nicholas brought back to life. As Jesus said (Lk. 17:6), “If you had faith like to a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree, Be thou rooted up, and be thou transplanted into the sea: and it would obey you.” Nicholas had such strong faith that, through him, God raised children from the dead! If only the same were true of all of us.
Then there’s the story about Nicholas from the Council of Nicaea, which is many moderns’ favorite tale. Angered by influential heretic Arius’s refusal to admit that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human (Arius denied Christ’s full divinity), Nicholas slapped or punched the heretic in the face! Below you can see a 14th century fresco depicting the event.
St. Nicholas Center cites “Byzantine tradition” as the story’s source, indicating either oral sources or written sources no longer extant. The story as handed down is that Nicholas lost his symbols of episcopal office, the pallium and mitre, over this incident. Apparently his fellow clerics didn’t approve of Nicholas’s way of dealing with heretics! But Jesus and Mary appeared in a vision and restored Nicholas’s lost symbols of office, and the holy bishop was vindicated. After all, Jesus cleansed the Temple with a whip.
So what does this story teach us? For one thing, that we have to be willing to do anything that is not sinful to defend truth. To some modern Christians, who have been told that love and mercy mean never so much as warning a sinner of the reality of Hell, it might sound odd that physical violence could be necessary to defend truth (though admittedly the circumstances for that are fairly narrow). Yet, as I noted above, we know that Jesus Himself, the same Who told us to turn the other cheek, used aggression when necessary to stop the profanation of the Temple.
“And he found in the temple them that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting. And when he had made, as it were, a scourge of little cords, he drove them all out of the temple, the sheep also and the oxen, and the money of the changers he poured out, and the tables he overthrew [Jn. 2:14-15].” Just like Jesus, just like St. Nicholas, just like our Founding Fathers, we have to understand that they are things and beliefs and people worth fighting for—the truth most of all.
In his homily today, my parish priest noted that St. Nicholas is a perfect saint for the season of Advent leading into Christmas, because he believed so strongly in the incarnation of God as man. Furthermore, he suffered and sacrificed for the truth even while going out of his way to bring joy and prosperity to others. While many now look around and see a world careening toward irretrievable disaster, they forget that disaster is only inevitable as long as good people are silent and passive. We might not be able to bring about world peace, but we can bring peace and justice to our own little part of the world.
Like St. Nicholas, let us zealously fight for and defend the truth, renew our faith, and bring joy to others in need this Advent and Christmas season.
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