“Is Santa Claus real?”
Parents can answer honestly, “Yes, Santa Claus is real.”
Or rather, he was real. Only his name wasn’t Santa Claus. It was Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who lived in Myra, a small town in what’s now Turkey.
But Saint Nicholas of Myra is much more than a chapter in the story of Santa Claus, according to Adam English, author of “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus.”
“His was a life of faith, to be sure, but it was also one of adventure and honor, justice and charity, goodwill and thick resolve,” he writes. “Nicholas experienced tragedy and triumph, the miraculous and the mundane. His life is worth remembering, and his story is worth retelling.”
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that while Nicholas is “one of the most popular saints in the Greek as well as the Latin church, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him.”
What is known is that he was Bishop of Myra, he was born in Patara — a city in Asia Minor — and, as a young man, he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. He took part in the Council of Nicaea, where he was among more than 300 bishops from all over the Christian world who came to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity. After his death, Italian merchants in 1087 stole his remains and took them to Italy.
“Then, curiously, story fragments and rumors begin to surface like driftwood in the water,” English writes. “A church is built in his honor at Constantinople, and suddenly he becomes an international symbol of holiday cheer and goodwill, an absolutely essential part of the Christmas tradition.”
Nicholas isn’t widely known beyond those traditions that emphasize the lives of the saints. Even among those churches that do, he is overlooked because his feast day, Dec. 6, is so close to Christmas.
During Advent, the focus is on John the Baptist and the prophecies of the Messiah. Christmas is all about the Christ child. After Christmas, at Epiphany, it’s all about the Three Kings and the spreading of the Good News, leaving little room for Nicholas, explained Michael Rich, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville.
“Let’s face it, there’s so much going on in a shot span of time that we’re not going to spend a lot of time on good old Nicholas of Myra,” said Rich, adding that typically he preaches a mid-week sermon about Nicholas on or near Dec. 6. “He was a great saint, but in the three-ring circus of the Christmas season … Nicholas is lucky to get a nose in the tent.”
In 1968, papal decree revised the Catholic liturgical calendar and demoted the feast days of 92 saints from “universal” to “optional,” including Saint Nicholas.
Yet Nicholas is said to be just about everyone’s saint, having been recognized as the guardian of an impossibly wide swath of people and cultures including children, unwed mothers, bankers, pawnbrokers, firemen, merchants, sailors, butchers, lawyers, embalmers, florists and brewers, to name a few.
‘The greatest gift-giver of all time’
Most of what is known about Nicholas comes from Michael the Archimandrite, who his earliest biographer, writing around A.D. 700.
Michael’s work served to inspire monks and other Christians who needed models for Christian living.
“They possessed few stories of Christian heroes, who lived lives of faithfulness to ripe old ages,” English writes. “Models for dying they had; models for living they needed.”
The most famous story of Nicholas takes place when he was perhaps 18. He learned of a destitute man who was prepared to sell his three daughters into prostitution. Nicholas became the girls’ protector by tossing a purse of gold coins into the man’s open window. The anonymous gift allowed the man to save his daughters from a life of poverty and disgrace.
“And like that, Nicholas entered the pages of history as one of the greatest gift-givers of all time,” English writes. “In this endearing and enduring story, we see all the raw materials for the magical Santa Claus tale — a mysterious night visitor who silently enters the home to bestow wonderful gifts to children.”
In roughly 295, and at the age of 30 or 35, Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra.
A man of action
During his early years as bishop, Christians were a hated and persecuted minority. Angry mobs often destroyed churches and burned sacred texts. This abuse was sanctioned until Constantine, ruler of the western half of the Roman Empire, declared not only toleration for Christians, but himself became a believer in Christ.
“Throughout the halcyon days of the mid-fourth century, anything was possible,” English writes. “God’s spirit was sweeping the land and the doors of the church could not be closed because of the people streaming in. Nicholas could not have lived at a more critical moment in Christian history.”
Nicholas was a man of action. Around 333 and at roughly 70 years old, he destroyed, by hand, what was, according to Michael, the tallest temple in Myra, of the Greek goddess Artemis.
It is unknown precisely when Nicholas died. Scholars put it between 333 and 335. Though stories of his life may have been exaggerated or wholly invented, they speak to an overarching theme, Rich said.
Nicholas had a “deep love for those who could not fend for themselves,” Rich said. “He was brave in standing up for justice, almost reckless in his generosity to the needy and deep in his love for the young and helpless. Those are stories worth hearing, because they are qualities worth having.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.