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Advent Thoughts: December 12th - The Real “Saint Nick”

Posted by Billy Pilgrim on December 12, 2011, 9:05 am


Many people may have at least a vague awareness that our modern Santa Claus has some close connection to a Christian Saint by the name of Nicholas. Even in the twenty-first century, he is still familiarly known as “Saint Nick,” often preceded by the descriptive “jolly, old.” The name Santa Claus itself (from the Dutch “Sinterklaas”) makes this connection pretty clear: “Santa” from the Latin Sanctus, meaning holy, and Claus, a Germanic-language nickname for Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas was, in fact, a real person. He was born into a wealthy Christian family in around the year 270, in what is now modern Turkey but was then a Greek-speaking province of the Roman Empire. The facts of his life are shrouded in antiquity and legend, but he was apparently a good and holy man renowned for his generosity and for his loving care of the people of Myra, a port city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, where he served as bishop. At his death, on December 6,343, he was popularly proclaimed as a saint by the people of Myra, where his mortal remains became an object of veneration for centuries.

But beyond these bare facts is the rich tradition of legend surrounding the life of Saint Nicholas, a man so holy that even as a baby he observed the fast days of the Church by refusing his mother’s breast! A number of the best-known tales of Saint Nicholas beautifully illustrate why he became one of the most revered and popular saints in the Christian world. And we can see, over a thousand years later, some of his legendary kindness reflected in our own modern Santa Claus. Here are some highlights from the miraculous life of Nicholas of Myra:

Little boys were disappearing from the streets of Myra during a time of famine in the city. Bishop Nicholas wanted to get to the bottom of this. By a heavenly guide, he was brought to the cellars of an evil butcher where he discovered a vat of little boys who had literally been pickled in brine. He brought the boys to life, saw that they were returned to their grateful families uneaten, and eliminated the evil butcher. Nicholas became the great friend and protector of children.

Myra was a thriving port city in the fourth century. Local sailors, caught in a vicious storm at sea, prayed to God for their lives. Their beloved Bishop Nicholas miraculously appeared at the helm of the ship and guided it safely home. Through his intercession, Nicholas was able to protect the people of his city from attacks by pirates, from storms, and to restore cargo that had been lost at sea. As the patron saint of sailors, Nicholas’s fame spread throughout the world.

A poor man of Myra was facing the coming of age of his three daughters. Without dowries, the girls would be unable to find husbands and their father feared that selling them into slavery and prostitution was their only alternative to starvation. Under cover of night, Nicholas went to the man’s home while the family slept. He threw three bags of gold, one for each girl’s dowry, through an open window. The bags of gold landed in their shoes, which had been drying by the fire. The man knew that only good Bishop Nicholas could have been behind such a generous and honor-saving gift, but the Bishop said simply that it was not he, but God, who would always provide for the wants of the poor. Nicholas’s generosity to the poor and hungry became central to his legend. It is said that he spent all of his own fortune in good works and lived--and died--a simple servant of God and his people.

After his death, Nicholas’s story spread throughout the Eastern Church. He continued to work miracles for those who called upon his help. His tomb in the Cathedral of Myra became a place of prayer and pilgrimage. The anniversary of his death, December 6, is still observed as his feast day--and the happy traditions of Saint Nicholas Day still enrich our lives. The returning Crusaders in the 11th century brought Saint Nicholas—literally—to Europe. And that’s the next part of Santa Claus’s story!

Here is a lovely Collect for the Feast of Saint Nicholas from the Anglican tradition:

ETERNAL GOD,
in your great love
you gave your servant NICHOLAS
a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea.
Grant that your Church may never cease to work
for the happiness of children,
the safety of sailors,
the relief of the poor
and the help of those who are tossed
by tempests of doubt or grief;
through JESUS CHRIST our LORD,
who lives and reigns with you and the HOLY SPIRIT,
one GOD, now and forever.
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