ASSIST News Service

The 6th December marked the beginning of the Christmas season for many people around the world. In fact, many people celebrate Christmas on this day - the anniversary of the death of a well-known Saint, Bishop Nicholas (which is why 6th December came to be regarded as St. Nicholas' Feast Day).

There are, of course, many legends about Nicholas, and these legends have given birth to other stories and legends surrounding Nicholas or, as he is become known by countless children around the world, "Santa Claus."

A LIFE OF DEVOTION TO CHRIST: An icon of St Nicholas (PICTURE: © Roxana Pohoata)

"(T)here is a way for parents to share the story of St Nicholas with their children and, in doing so, point them to the true meaning of Christmas. And that is by sharing the story of St Nicholas who modeled Jesus Christ. Everything he did pointed to Christ!"

Many Christian parents struggle over the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus and whether or not they should share the Santa Claus legend with their own children - or even allow their own children to believe in such a mythical figure. In fact, some would argue that Santa Claus is a deliberate deception played on innocent children and created by the devil himself to take the focus off the true meaning of Christmas. And, if you arrange the letters of Santa around, you get the name "Satan!"

However, there is a way for parents to share the story of St Nicholas with their children and, in doing so, point them to the true meaning of Christmas. And that is by sharing the story of St Nicholas who modeled Jesus Christ. Everything he did pointed to Christ!

The real Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in a small fishing village named Patara in Lycia and raised to be a devout Christian. His parents loved to travel, and they took their little boy on several trips including a visit to the Far East where a young Nicholas first saw the longing eyes of children in need - many of them begging for food on the streets.

Nicholas' parents died in a plague epidemic when he was 12. Remembering what he saw on his journeys and what his parents taught him, and obeying Jesus' words to sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, Nicholas used his whole inheritance to help assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.

Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God and sought the holy by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus' life, passion, and resurrection. In John 14: 12, Jesus tells Philip, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these..." (NIV). And Nicholas did great things! He walked in Jesus' footsteps and demonstrated the life of a devout follower of Jesus Christ. And like the Apostles who carried on with what Jesus began, Nicholas' ministry and work was filled with signs and wonders.

Nicholas left the Holy Land and began a long journey to Myra (the principal city in Turkey) to become an altar boy. At the time, the council of church elders in Myra were indecisive over the appointing of their next bishop. They resolved to meet in the morning after spending time in prayer and meditation at their lodgings. That night, one of the elders had a dream. In his dream, God told him that the first person named Nicholas to enter the cathedral the next day would be the new appointed bishop.

Meanwhile, as Nicholas was returning by sea from his visit to the Holy Land, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. The next day (after reaching land), a tired Nicholas entered the first church he found and was warmly greeted by an elder. The elder asked what his name was. When Nicholas told the elder his name, the elder took Nicholas to the other elders saying "Here is our new Bishop!" Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Many referred to Bishop Nicholas as the 'wonder-worker'. He became the secret benefactor of three young girls from his parish who were born into a poor family. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value, called a "dowry". And the larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. But without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. And poor unmarried young girls were destined to be sold into slavery. 

The teachings of Christ were written on Nicholas' heart. He held close Jesus' words in Matthew chapter 6: "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (verses 1-4, NIV).

So, mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in the poor father's home and provided the needed dowries for his three young girls. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry. This is what led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.

Another story tells of three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them. Then he hid their remains in a large pickle barrel. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas was traveling along the same route and stopped at this very inn. In the night, God revealed to him the crime in a dream. He got up and summoned the innkeeper. Finding the bodies of the boys, Nicholas prayed earnestly and the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. 

In another story, a terrible famine struck the country. Bishop Nicholas persuaded a grain merchant to give him a small portion of his tribute which was intended for the emperor. Nicholas prayed, and the portion miraculously multiplied. It was enough to feed the entire starving population of Myra for two years and replenish the merchant's cargo.

"It wasn't long after Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra before Diocletian and Maximian began their persecutions of Christians, and the new bishop was imprisoned...He was exiled, imprisoned, and tortured. The prisons at the time were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, that there was no room for murderers, thieves, and robbers."

With these blessings came persecution for Nicholas. It wasn't long after Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra before Diocletian and Maximian began their persecutions of Christians, and the new bishop was imprisoned. Under the Roman Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith. He was exiled, imprisoned, and tortured. The prisons at the time were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, that there was no room for murderers, thieves, and robbers.

When Constantine became emperor, Nicholas was released with countless others and returned to his preaching only to find a new threat: Arianism - the theological teaching attributed to Arius, a Christian presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt, which denied the Trinitarian concept of God. Arianism taught that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by God the Father. Thus, he was therefore distinct from God the Father. But thanks to the bold teaching and prayers of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected.

Nicholas died on 6th December, 343AD, in Myra. And because of his popularity, stories continued to be told of the gift-giver. And over time (through such legends and stories), both his name and appearance began to change from country to country. From the German Weihnachtsmann to the Dutch Sinterklaas to England's Father Christmas to the American Santa Claus, the real story of Saint Nicholas inevitably became intertwined with other stories and legends. And soon, it was lost in the Christmas traditions. Yet, retellings of the real Saint Nicholas story point to the true meaning of Christmas and give God all the glory. And his story can teach our children to follow the Christ-like example that Nicholas led - at Christmastime and all year round!