St. Nicholas is the most popular Greek Orthodox saint, equivalent to St. Peter in Roman Catholic tradition. Greek Orthodox traditions tells of Saint Nicholas being born around A.D. 280, the only child of a wealthy, elderly couple who lived in Patara, Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). When his parents died in a plague, Nicholas inherited their wealth.
Nicholas generously gave to the poor, but did it anonymously as he wanted the glory to go to God. One notable incident was when a merchant in town had gone bankrupt. The creditors threatened to take, not only the merchants’ house and property, but also his children. The merchant had three daughters. He knew if they were taken it would probably mean a life of sex-trafficking, prostitution or forced marriages.
The merchant had an idea of quickly marrying his daughters off so the creditors could not take them. Unfortunately, he did not have money for a dowry, which was needed in that area of the world for a legally recognized wedding. Nicholas heard of the merchant’s dilemma and, late at night, threw a bag of money in the window for the oldest daughter’s dowry. Supposedly the bag of money landed in a shoe or a stocking that was drying by the fireplace. It was the talk of the town when the first daughter got married.
Nicholas then threw a bag of money in the window for the second daughter and she was able to get married. Upon throwing money in for the third daughter, the merchant ran outside and caught Nicholas. Nicholas made him promise not to tell where the money came from, as he wanted God alone to get the credit.
This was the origin of hanging stockings by the fireplace and midnight secret gift-giving on the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’ death, which was Dec. 6, 343 A.D.
The three bags of money which Nicholas threw into the house are remembered by the three gold balls hung outside a pawnbroker’s shop – as they present themselves as rescuing families in their time of financial need.
Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the birthplace of Jesus. Mark Twain wrote in “Innocents Abroad,” 1869, of visiting the Church of the Nativity: “This spot where the very first ‘Merry Christmas!’ was uttered in all the world, and from whence the friend of my childhood, Santa Claus, departed on his first journey, to gladden and continue to gladden roaring firesides on wintry mornings in many a distant land forever and forever.”
Nicholas considered joining a secluded monastery, until the Lord impressed upon him “not to hide his light under a bushel.” Nicholas returned to Asia Minor where he became the Bishop of Myra, a busy Mediterranean port city on the south coast. Soon Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned during Emperor Diocletian’s brutal persecution of Christians, as he refused to deny his faith in Christ. Nicholas was freed when Emperor Constantine ended Rome’s three century-long persecution of Christians.
When the first major heresy – the Arian Heresy – began to split the Christian Church, Constantine ordered all the bishops to go to Nicea to settle it, which they did by writing the Nicene Creed. The tradition is that St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea and was so upset at Arius for starting this heresy that he slapped him across the face. Evidently, Jolly Old St. Nick had a little temper!
Nicholas preached against the sexual immorality Artemis or Diana fertility worship, as did the Apostle Paul according to the Book of Acts, chapter 19.
The Temple to Diana at Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, twice as big as the Parthenon in Athens, having 127 huge pillars – and temple prostitutes. It was the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean world. Nicholas’ preaching led the people of Myra to tear down their local temple to Diana. Shortly after, from the preaching of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (A.D. 397-403), the people tore down the temple to Diana at Ephesus.
Nicholas confronted dishonest government politicians. One story was of a corrupt governor who was about to execute some innocent soldiers in order to cover up his misdeeds. Nicholas broke through the crowd, grabbed the executioner’s sword, threw it down and then exposed the governor’s evil plot. The governor, realizing that Nicholas had no way of knowing his plot except by insight from God, fell on his knees and begged Nicholas to pray for him.
Greek Orthodox tradition attributes many miraculous answers to St. Nicholas’ prayers. Once a storm was so bad that fishermen and sailors were not able to get back to shore. The people asked Nicholas to pray and the sea became calm enough for the fishermen and sailors to return safely to port. This led to Nicholas being considered the patron saint of sailors.
Nicholas died Dec. 6, 343 A.D. In the fifth century a church was built in Myra in his honor. It was damaged in an earthquake in A.D. 529, after which Emperor Justinian rebuilt it.
In 988, Vladimir the Great of Russia converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and adopted Nicholas as the patron saint of Russia.
In the 11th century, Muslim jihad terrorists, the Seljuks Turks, invaded Asia Minor, killing Christians, destroying churches and digging up the bones of Christian saints and desecrating them. Hadith Sahih Muslim (Book 4, No. 2115) states: “Do not leave an image without obliterating it, or a high grave without leveling it.”
For protection, Christians shipped the remains of St. Nicholas to a church in the town of Bari in southern Italy in the year 1087. Pope Urban II dedicated the church, naming it after St. Nicholas – the Basilica di San Nicola, thus introducing this Greek St. Nicholas to Western Europe.
So many Christians were fleeing the Muslim invasion of Eastern Europe that Pope Urban II went to the Council of Claremont in 1095 and called upon European leaders to send help. Help was sent help – it was called the First Crusade.
With St. Nicholas’ remains in Italy, western Europeans quickly embraced the gift-giving traditions associated with him.
How did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus?
By 1223, so much attention was being given to gift-giving during the Christmas season, that Saint Francis of Assisi wanted to refocus the attention to the birth of Christ. St. Francis created the first creche or nativity scene, a humble manger of farm animals with the focus being on Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus – the Son of God come to dwell among men.
In 1517, Martin Luther began the Reformation, which effectively ended “saints days,” including the popular “St. Nicholas Day,” as these days were considered distractions from Christ. Since Germans like the gift-giving, Martin Luther moved the giving to December 25th to emphasize that all gifts come from the Christ Child. The German pronunciation of Christ Child was “Christkindl,” which over the centuries got pronounced Kris Kringle.
As Roman Catholics say St. Peter is at the Gates of Heaven, a Greek Orthodox tradition developed from the prophecy of Jesus returning at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead, riding a white horse, and the saints returning with him, riding white horses.
Revelation 19:11-16 “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. … And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King Of Kings, And Lord Of Lords.”
Revelation 19:14 added: “… And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.”
As Nicholas is a saint, the reasoning is that he would certainly be one of multitude returning with Jesus, riding a white horse. The Greeks just embellished it with St. Nicholas coming back once a year for a sort of mini pre-Judgement Day, to check up on the children to see if they are on the right track.
Over the centuries, the story evolved. In Norway there were no horses, so they have St. Nicholas riding a reindeer. Saints came heaven, the New Jerusalem, the Celestial City – which turned into the North Pole. The Lamb’s Book of Life and Book of Works turned into the Book of the “naughty and nice.” The angels turned into elves.
During Henry VIII’s reign, Christmas celebrations in England became sort of a Mardi Gras – a time of partying and carousing. When Puritans took over England, they outlawed Christmas as too worldly. When Puritans settled Massachusetts, they had a five-shilling fine for anyone caught celebrating Christmas.
Puritan leader, Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), told his congregation, Dec. 25, 1712: “Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honored, by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadan? You cannot possibly think so!”
But the Dutch settlers loved Christmas and St. Nicholas traditions. The Dutch had St. Nicholas coming once a year to give presents to good children, accompanied by a Moorish costumed helper, Zwarte Piet, who would put naughty children into gunny sacks to take back to Spain where they would be sold into Muslim slavery.
Eventually, Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas traditions to New Amsterdam, which became New York in 1665. Dutch pronounced Saint Nicholas as “Sinter Klass” or “Sant Nikolaus,” which became pronounced “Santa Claus.”
Washington Irving was the author of “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Irving also wrote “Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New York,” 1809, in which he described St. Nicholas no longer wearing a bishop’s outfit, but a typical Dutch outfit of long-trunk hose, leather belt, boots and a stocking hat.
Clement Moore was an Episcopal priest and Hebrew professor at General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City. His family’s land is now the New York neighborhood of Chelsea, where a Clement Clarke Moore Park is located at 10th Ave. and 22nd St. In 1823, Clement Moore wrote a poem for his six children titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas”:
‘Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung
by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas
soon would be there. …
When, what to my wondering
eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh,
and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver,
so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment
it must be St. Nici. …
So up to the house-top
the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys,
and St. Nicholas. …
As I drew in my head,
and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas
came with a bound. …
Clement Moore described St. Nicholas as smaller:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
Harper’s Weekly Magazine had an illustrator named Thomas Nast, who drew St. Nicholas visiting Union troops. Nast, who was famous for inventing the Republican elephant and Democrat mule in his political cartoons, was the first artist to put a “North Pole” sign behind St. Nick as a subtle jab against the South during the Civil War. In 1930, Coca Cola hired artist Haddon Sundblom, famous for his Quaker Oats man, to create a painting every year of ” Jolly Old St. Nick” drinking Coke.
Though many additions have been added on, there really was a godly, courageous bishop in fourth century Asia Minor named Nicholas, who:
- loved Jesus enough go into the ministry
- be imprisoned for his faith by the Romans
- stood for the doctrine of the Trinity
- preached against sexually immoral pagan temples
- was very generous, giving to the poor in their time of need
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