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The real Saint Nicholas

Painting of Saint Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák (1831 – 1878)
Credit: Wikipedia/Public Domain

While our modern Santa Claus has taken on god-like qualities in our modern culture, the story of jolly ole Saint Nick finds its roots in a real man, Saint Nicholas, who served as the Bishop of Myra located in modern Turkey.

The city of Myra, located on the Mediterranean, is briefly mentioned in Acts 27:5, as Paul, now a prisoner, was being transported to Rome by a centurion

According to ancient tradition, Nicholas (270 AD – Dec 6, 343 AD) was born in the city of Patara, also located on the Mediterranean Sea. It was a city, that the Apostle Paul visited while on his journey to Jerusalem (Acts 21:1-2).

Nicholas came from a very wealthy Christian family and for the first half of his life, he lived during some of the most horrific times of Roman persecution, under the emperor Diocletian (284 – 305).

During this period, Roman soldiers were going door to door searching for copies of scripture. It was this persecution that spurred the early believers to canonize the Bible, as they wanted to make sure they were risking their lives for legitimate writings.

Christians were also being removed from public office and from serving in the military. Christian leaders were also being rounded up and forced to make offerings to the Roman gods on the threat of death.

We know Nicholas was arrested during these persecutions and there is evidence from his bones that he may have experienced torture himself.

After his death, Nicholas’ was buried in a sarcophagus in Myra. In 1087, his bones were stolen by a group of merchants from the Italian city of Bari, who pretended they had come to pay homage to the Bishop. The group took the bones back to Bari, where they became the central piece of a shrine dedicated to the infamous bishop.

The bones, now located in the underground crypt beneath the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, were examined in the 1950s. Using the X-rays and measurements taken at that time, in 2004 researchers were able to reconstruct a 3D image of the man. It revealed that his nose had been severely broken, which probably took place during his arrest.

It also showed that he was in his sixties when he died. He was approximately 5’6″ tall and had a rounded face and a beard. A later dating of part of the pelvis confirmed it to be from the fourth century when Nicholas died.

But the early traditions of Saint Nick secretly giving gifts actually started while he was in his 20s, and before he became Bishop.

After his parents died, Nicholas gained a reputation for distributing his wealth to the poor.

Perhaps the most famous of these, involved a poor man living near Nicholas’ home, who had three young daughters. Because he was unable to provide a dowry for their marriage, the man had decided to sell them into prostitution as a way of providing for them.

When Nicholas heard of this, late one night he snuck to the poor man’s house and secretly dropped a small bag of gold through a window to provide a dowry for one of the girls. After the man found it and Nicholas saw that he used the money as a dowry, Nicholas then secretly left another bag for the second daughter.

At this point, the poor man realizing that there would probably be another bag left for his third daughter decided to stay up and find out who his secret benefactor was.

When he caught Nicholas in the act of leaving the third bag of gold, Nicholas told the father to tell no one about the incident. Of course, the man did, and Nicholas’ fame spread throughout the city.

After he became Bishop, there are records that he attended the council of Nicaea in 325 AD, initiated by Emperor Constantine, who had made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire. It was the first ecumenical council held post-Acts 15, and focussed largely on doctrinal issues.

And during his time as Bishop, another story emerged of how he saved three sailors from execution who had been wrongly accused by corrupt officials of stealing pagan holy items.

Nicholas actually intervened as the execution was about to take place. He reportedly grabbed the executioner’s sword and released the three men from their chains.

He then went to the governor’s office, who had ordered the execution, and threatened to report him to Emperor Constantine for corruption, if the chargers were not rescinded.

The story revealed the growing power of Bishops in Roman society under Constantine, and eventually led to Nicholas being declared the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.

Nicholas’ fame grew through these and other accounts of his life. This was evidenced less than two hundred years after his death when the Roman Emperor Theodosius II ordered a new church be constructed over the remains of the church where Nicholas once served as Bishop.

Nicholas’ sarcophagus was then moved to this new building, where it was later plundered by the Italian merchants.

By around 1200, Roman Catholic Churches were starting to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day on December 6, the day he died. This included sweets, candies, and small gifts being put in the children’s shoes.

The rest they say is history.

READ: Who Was St. Nicholas? AND When is St. Nicholas Day 2022? What to know about the time-honored holiday tradition

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