As Baptists we really don’t do much with Saints. The only two we really talk about are St. Patrick and St. Nicholas (Santa Claus). And the reason these two make the cut is because of the secular nature of both St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas. But I thought we would look at St. Nicholas, a real life Bishop of Myra this week. It’s worth reclaiming the real St. Nicholas during the Advent Season.
St. Nicholas lived long ago during the 300s or fourth century. He was Bishop of Myra, which is in modern day Turkey. Very little is actually known about his life. He is remembered as a man of great faith and compassion. He didn’t leave any writings behind either. We are only left with the legends surrounding his life. But I think the legends are worth looking at because they inform us about his character.
There are two famous stories about St. Nicholas. The first one may be surprising to you. At this point in Church history, there is a grand debate about Jesus. They are discussing whether Jesus is equal to God the Father in status and in power. It’s known as the Arian controversy. So, a gathering is announced. It’s called the Council of Nicaea. There is a story about St. Nicholas who attends the Council. Nicholas is confronted by a person who won’t be convinced that Jesus is equal to God the Father. And what does St. Nicholas do? He slaps that man in the face. Or so we are told. He is later reprimanded for this and is thrown into prison by Emperor Constantine. He has a vision while in prison, is redeemed by it, and is reinstated as bishop.
St. Nicholas is also known for his gift giving. His parents died when he was young and he inherited lots of money. The most famous story about him is about his gift to a poor father and his three daughters. The father has lost all of his money and is unable to get husbands for his three daughters. The daughters are in danger of becoming prostitutes. So one night, St. Nicholas tosses three bags of money into the open window. Or in some versions the bags of money go down the chimney. St. Nicholas saves the daughters from a terrible fate.
For years the church celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th. Because St. Nicholas is known for his gift giving, children would receive presents from St. Nicholas on his feast day. This custom immigrated to North America with the Dutch as their children told their neighbors about “Sinter Klaas”-the bishop in red vestments who brought them surprises on his feast day.
The American Santa Claus came from the St. Nicholas feast day tradition and the mispronouncing of “Sinter Klaas”. Santa Claus still wears red but has taken on a life of his own complete with a North Pole address and reindeer. Both Santa Claus and St. Nicholas give gifts but the gifts are different. Santa has his bundle of toys. St. Nicholas gives nothing short of freedom from poverty and desperation. He is one who practiced true charity. (Richard John Neuhaus, 40)
Our St. Nicholas is a man who brought people out of poverty and slapped heretics in the face. He’s a bit different than our Santa Claus, but I like him. He’s sassy and he’s giving the best gifts out there-dignity and hope.
Info taken from two sources-including some direct quotes.
God With Us-Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, Paraclete Press, 2007
The Saint Nicholas Center- http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/home/