The Legend of Saint Nicholas

Updated on January 23, 2018
Anna Watson profile image

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

Born on 15 March, 270 AD, in Patara Lycia, which was then in Greece, but is now in the southern coast in modern day Turkey. The life of Nicholas (Nikolaos) of Myra is clothed in mystery as few records up till now have survived. He served as bishop of Myra (near the modern town of Finike, Turkey) in the 300s. Nicholas was born to wealthy and devout parents who raised him as a Christian. Legend holds that even as an infant Nicholas was very pious, preferring to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, refusing his mother’s milk until evening after his parents had finished their prayers. His parents died in an epidemic while he was still a young, and the wealth, quite naturally, passed down to him.

Matthew 19:16-22, tells of a rich man who approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told the man to obey the commandments. When asked which ones, Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do no commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your faith and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The man told Jesus that he has done all of those things, and asked what he still lacked. Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have your treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” This greatly disheartened the rich man, who turned away and left. It made him sad, but he would not part with his wealth to follow Jesus.

A religious man, the devout, young Nicholas was familiar with this story. Unlike, the unnamed rich man described in Matthew, however, Nicholas was willing to give up his possessions and his family’s great wealth, and exchange it all for the cross of Jesus. He cited Matthew 19:16-22 as the basis for his generosity. He didn’t just give it up in one lump sum, rather, he used the money over the course of his life, assisting the sick, the needy, the poor and the suffering. Nonetheless, all of his money eventually went to those in need. One legend states that one day he glanced out his window and witnessed three young girls about to be sold, against their wills, into a life of prostitution. Observing their distress, Nicholas threw bags of gold out his window to buy the girls’ freedom. Some varieties of the legend state that the gold landed in socks that had been hung up to dry. While other variants hold that it was the girls’ own father who was going to sell them. So Nicholas threw balls of gold through the window of the girls’ house to be used as a dowry so they could marry. Still other versions have Nicholas throwing the gold down the chimney.

Throughout his life he was renowned for his generosity and devotion to God. He was known as a protector of children and sailors.

Nicholas was so dedicated to Christ that he was made bishop of Myra while still a young a man. As is the case for many of the pious members of the early church, Nicholas suffered for his faith. He was imprisoned under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian swept to power after spending most of his life in the military. He sought to reform Rome, end the domestic anarchy, and separate the military from the politics. Towards the end of his reign, in an effort to bring unity to the country, he began what would be Christianity’s last major persecution. Over a period of eight years, Diocletian attempted to eradicate the church from the Roman Empire. Many martyrs were produced in that time, and many Christians were tortured or imprisoned. It is said that during this time period, the prisons were so filled with Christians that there was no room for actual murderers and other criminals. The persecution lasted until Constantine became emperor and issued the edict of Milan, in 313 AD. This not only freed the early Christians, but returned their rights and privileges.

Once released from prison, Nicholas resumed his service to God and in 325 AD, he attended the Council of Nicaea. This ecumenical council was the first of the early church and resulted in the Nicene Creed, a profession of faith still recited by Catholics and most Protestant denominations to this day. Legend holds that while at the council, Nicholas became so enraged at a heretic that he hauled off and punched him, though no accurate records exist of such an event. According to the legend, the heretic, Arius, denied the divinity of Christ. Nicholas took offense and struck Arius, and for this he was removed from the council. However, as he was being escorted out, Mary and Jesus suddenly appeared at his side, when the council saw this, they concluded that Nicholas was correct and reinstated him.

While it is unlikely that the legend is true, it remains a popular story to this day. There are many other legends and miracles associated with Nicholas. Throughout his life he was renowned for his generosity and devotion to God. He was known as a protector of children and sailors. While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he saw the devil board the ship. Satan intended to create a storm to sink the ship, killing all on board. Nicholas prayed and through his intercession, the waves calmed and the passengers were spared. It is also said that the prayers of Nicholas once ended a famine in Myra. In another story he saved the lives of three men who were wrongfully condemned to death by a corrupt governor. Nicholas walked up to the executioner and took the sword just before he took that fatal swing. Boldly, Nicholas rebuked the wicked governor, who immediately repented of his sin.

On 6 December, 343, an elderly Nicholas died peacefully in his sleep. However, even death couldn’t put an end to his miracles. It is said that even after he died, his generosity and protection continued unabated. He was recognized as a saint long before the Catholic Church began the formal canonization process in the tenth century. His life is shrouded in mystery and legend, the latter of which persisted and grew long after his death. He remained popular in Europe, even after the veneration of saints fell out of favor with the Protestants after the Reformation.

Through the centuries the Christkindl, and St. Nicholas legends became inseparable, especially as the pronunciation of Christkindl morphed into Kris Kingle, while Sinterklaas, eventually came to be pronounced as Santa Claus.

Santa Clause

In Holland the Dutch would leave their shoes out on the night before the feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. The following morning, they would find that the good Saint (Sinterklaas, in Dutch) left behind gifts for them. Some Dutch families brought this legend with them when they migrated to the New World in the 1700s. Saint Nicholas’ popularity continued to grow and become mixed with Germanic legends of the Christkindl (literally, Christ child) who came bearing gifts. Through the centuries the Christkindl, and St Nicholas legends became inseparable, especially as the pronunciation of Christkindl morphed into Kris Kingle, while Sinterklaas, eventually became pronounced as Santa Claus. The more popular the legends became the more they began to grow and take on lives of their own.

Poets in the nineteenth century became responsible for the stories of Nicholas living in the North Pole, driving a sleigh that was guided by flying reindeer, and coming down through chimneys. Department stores and Coca-Cola got in on the action, giving birth to Rudolph and the classic red-clad look that is associated with Santa Claus. But despite the legends and myths, there really was a devout Christian named Nicholas, later venerated as a saint, who was renowned for his charity and good deeds throughout his lifetime. No matter what else, we would all do well to remember and honor the life of the real St. Nicholas.

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    © 2017 Anna Watson

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