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The True Saint Nick


by Jeremy Stein


Suppose one was ever to decide to join the Center for Holy Lands Studies on an exciting trip to Turkey. In that case, it is possible that a visit to the home of one of the most famous Saints of all time, Saint Nicholas. Rest assured, on most days of the year, a traveler can leave their knit mittens at home. We are not talking about the North Pole, rather the coastal city of ancient Myra, the home of Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas was the presiding bishop of the city and the man whose Christ-bound life modeled the legend that developed into who we know in the west as "Santa Claus."

Much of what is celebrated about his life is nothing more than fanciful embellishment. However, somewhat reliable streams of tradition and ancient writings and iconography lend to an understanding of how this man of God developed into the icon that exists today.


Born in the waning years of the 3rd Century AD, Saint Nicholas grew into adulthood during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, one of the most prolific persecutors of the Church in Roman history. Different accounts exist on Saint Nicholas' life during these years ranging from stories of imprisonment to brutal beatings with clubs at the Romans' hands. Historians almost unanimously say, based off of the strong traditions, that, due to the stories, Nicholas did endure some form of persecution during his early adult years. Saint Nicholas was not venerated due to persecution. Rather, he is most remembered, by both Christian and not alike, for his actions of compassion, mercy, and charity during his early life, even before he assumed Bishop's Role.


Nicholas was born into a wealthy family. At the death of his parents at a young age, Nicholas inherited a large fortune, making him one of the wealthiest individuals in Myra's port city in the 3rd century. Yet, some of the earliest traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas[1], claim that he was enamored by "the Proverbs of Solomon", specifically Proverbs 22 as well as Psalm 143, which speak of doing the will of God by having compassion on the beggar and those in need. Nicholas exuded an attitude demonstrated by the early church in Jerusalem. They modeled in Acts 2:45, (one that sought to do what the Rich Young Ruler of the Gospel could not[2]), to give all they had to further the Gospel message in their community. In later years, though not as prevalent, it appears that in places such as Smyrna, this model continued to be a lifestyle for the other believers [3], just as in the hearts of believers such as Saint Nicholas.


Ancient sources relay that one day a neighbor of Saint Nicholas, who was a member of the believers of Myra, lost his entire wealth due to an act of evil against him and was now pushed to the point of poverty near starvation. All that remained were his three daughters and no sons. Although his daughters were said to have been very beautiful, no man wanted to marry them due to their financial realities. A man who would marry one of the daughters would not receive a dowry and would assume the family's financial burden. Although the father of the three had always lived his life in obedience to God, the direness of the situation had pushed him to the point of desperation. The father "lost sight of his salvation" and sought to prostitute his daughters for their survival. Upon hearing of these events, Nicholas, wanting to spare the women from such an abysmal dishonor and holding such disdain for any man to become hostage sin, concocted a plan to rescue the family. To keep anonymity for himself and spare the family from any more shame, Nicholas waited until the dead of night. He snuck a large sum of money, enough of a dowry to immediately find a marriage for the eldest daughter, by dropping it through the window. In the morning, upon seeing the dowry finances, the father, who is beautifully stated to have been seized with "ungovernable tears," immediately found a groom for his daughter, rescuing the family. Yet, Saint Nicholas did not stop there. Upon seeing the Joy of the Lord that returned to the family and their change of relationship with the father, Nicholas returned once more after the marriage of the first daughter. He placed a second sum of money for the second daughter, once again slinking off into the night unnoticed. The father awoke the next day, even more shocked than the first time. The most trusted of all the traditions says that the man knew he had seen true mercy from the father, but also an act that mimicked the immeasurable grace of God.


With two of three daughters quickly married away and the family saved, the man of compassion that was Saint Nicholas did not yet feel released from his mission of mercy, as once more he snuck to the house in the dead of night to deliver a third dowry. By this point, however, although the future Bishop of Myra had made all attempts to conceal his identity, the father was lying in wait. He found the one whom God used to save him from turning away from the father in that moment of desperation. When the money was dropped through the window, the father sprang after Nicholas, throwing himself at his feet, weeping profusely, and thanking him for his actions. Nicholas, still modeling an attitude of Christ Jesus, reminded the man that the blessings of mercy and compassion that he received were ultimately from the father above. Even in a state of abandonment from the Gospel message in the previous dark moments of his life, he was worthy to receive them because of the compassion and mercy that was given to us by Christ on the cross. He then commanded the man to not speak of these events, yet similar to those whom Jesus uttered the same words to in the Gospels, the glory of God is too hard to hide in such a manner. In the years following the life of Saint Nicholas, a tradition arose to give gifts to those in need on the 6th of December, the anniversary of the death of St. Nicholas [4]. This was intended to honor the life that he lived in the hopes that similar actions by Christ's followers would inspire an even greater witness for the Gospel.


Over the generations, the understanding of the character of Saint Nicholas has become muddled with our own ideas, interpretations, and cultural appropriations. However, the life, deeds, and example of this great man of God still touch us today. Not only as Christians but simply as people of the 21st century, we probably will never go a Christmas season without a gift. However, the meaning behind each and every gift becomes even more significant when we pause to look upon the actions that started our traditions. The actions of a man whose heart was to give away what God had already blessed him with to further a Christlike witness and the Gospel message.


Written by Jeremy Stein, Education Content & Teaching Specialist at the Center for Holy Lands Studies.


[1]Such as the writings of Michael the Archimandrite of whom the large majority of accepted tradition on the Life of Saint Nicholas is based upon.

[2] Matthew 19:21

[3] Revelation 2:9 speaks of the Church of Smyrna being poor, however the city was famously immensely wealthy, leading some scholars to believe that the reason for the poverty of the church, based on the fact that the church receives no rebuke from Christ lived a lifestyle mirroring of Acts 2:45

[4]December 6th, AD 343

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