St. Nicholas was born around 270 AD in Patara, a small town in the province of Lycia, which is present-day Turkey. He was the only son of a rich family and was orphaned while still a boy. Even as a young man, he used his inherited wealth to help the poor.
St. Nicholas lived in the time of the persecution under Emperor Diocletian and was put in prison because he wouldn’t renounce his Christian faith. He was eventually released.
Later, when Constantine was emperor, the bishops of the province of Lycia were gathered to elect a bishop for the city of Myra. They received a message from heaven directing them to choose the first man to enter the church in the morning. It was Nicholas who did so and he was elected as bishop of Myra.
He was one of the council fathers at the first ecumenical council-the first of Nicea. He staunchly defended the true faith against the heresy of Arius. At one point during the conciliar debate he became so overwhelmed with the heresy of Arius that he got up from his place, went over and punched him in the nose. Archbishop Nicholas was expelled from the council but, a few days later, after apologizing, he was forgiven and readmitted to the council chamber. He continued as archbishop of Myra until death around 350 AD. He was about 80 years old.
St. Nicholas is remembered especially for his many miracles. Tradition tells us that he once calmed a violent storm on the open sea and prevented certain shipwreck. On another occasion he warned Emperor Constantine that three innocent officers had been unjustly sentenced to be executed. Constantine had them freed. St. Nicholas also healed many people of incurable diseases.
Possibly the most well known act of St. Nicholas is that he provided the dowry for three daughters of a poor man who was going to sell them into slavery because he couldn’t afford the dowry. It is said that on each occasion he put the needed amount of gold coins in one of his red bishop’s socks and either dropped it down the chimney or tossed it through an open window. Thus we have the custom of hanging up our stockings on Christmas Eve. We also have the tradition that Santa Claus enters a home through the chimney.
As St. Nicholas’s story went from place to place, it eventually reached the West where it took on some of the winter legends of local religious beliefs. Eventually he became the Santa Claus we know in the United States. Many of our customs and depictions of Santa Claus come directly or indirectly from St. Nicholas. For example:
As a man of some means, he would have ridden a white horse when he visited the faithful of his eparchy. When this information reached northern Europe, somehow the horse became reindeer. If St. Nicholas weren’t riding a horse, he would have been pulled in a sled by a white horse. As a bishop, he would have taken a deacon with him when he visited the poor. In Europe, the deacon was turned into an elf.
Since St. Nicolas’ day of death, December 6th, comes during the Philip Fast, the clergy would wear red vestments. Santa Claus wears a red suit. The bishops in the Western church wore pointed miters of soft cloth which would flop over. Santa Clause wears a soft pointed hat that is flopped over. Instead of the Eastern bishops’ zezl, Roman Catholic bishops carry a crozier shaped like a shepherd’s crook – or a candy cane.
So, to the question “Is there a Santa Claus?”, the answer is most definitely ‘Yes!’, and he is St. Nicholas, who stands by the side of God in Heaven and prays on our behalf.
Merry Christmas to Everyone! Thank you for all of your comments and visits!
A Special Thanks to Father Nicholas Rachford of St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church for the text of this post.