The true story of St. Nicholas: Bishop of Myra, giver of gifts to children, and defender of orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea
Did you know that December 6 is “St. Nicholas Day” (also commonly known as “St. Nicholas’ Feast Day”1) and is widely celebrated in many parts of Europe and some parts of Asia today? A number of Protestants have been celebrating this day for ages. Catholics and Orthodox celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 19. While widely practiced in some parts of the world and certain branches of Christianity, this holiday is not very popular among some denominations, particularly in the USA and abroad.
For many, this is a day for gift giving and merrymaking with family and friends. The celebration typically starts on the evening before (the 5th) with people sharing and lighting candles and eating loads of chocolate and festive candies. Children also may leave carrots or hay in their shoes and stockings in exchange for small gifts. And in some countries, like Germany and Poland, boys will even dress up as red-robed bishops begging alms for the poor.
You might be wondering, is this St. Nicholas’ Feast Day just another “version” of Christmas? I’ll let the reader decide, but first, let’s go over a little history behind this holiday.
Many of these Feast Day festivities really began taking root among Protestants in Europe during the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
Many of these Feast Day festivities really began taking root among Protestants in Europe during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Although many Reformers during this time were abandoning the Saints Day celebrations (remembrance of the saints), some, primarily in the Netherlands, still tightly held onto St. Nicholas as a popular figure, especially among those with children. Hence, over the next few centuries, the Feast Day tradition quickly grew in popularity across Europe.
At one point, the Puritans had actually done away with St. Nicholas celebrations altogether (and other special holidays), but the Dutch kept hold of their tradition and eventually brought it to North America.2 Once arrived, they told stories about “Sint Nicolaas” (Dutch version of St. Nicholas), which later transformed into “Sinter Klaas,” as a bishop dressed in red garments that brought gifts on this Feast Day.
The English-Americans would later mispronounce this name as “Santa Claus.” Because the Christmas season begins four Sundays before Christmas (i.e., the four Advent Sundays that count down to Christmas), this meant that December 6 always fell during the first part of the Christmas season. So over the years, St. Nick, as he is affectionately known, became associated with Christmas. And over time, this celebration veered off into something similar to what we see today (associating St. Nick with December 25 rather than the original December 6 date).
Fast forward to today, and our culture has essentially forgotten the history of St. Nicholas and replaced it with mythical-like Santa Claus, where St. Nick has falsely taken on attributes of God. And now, sadly, “Santa” has become the primary focus for many during the Christmas season (rather than the true reason: the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ).
So now you’re probably wondering, who was St. Nicholas, really, and what did he do? Was he just based on some fabled character, dressed in a red robe with a big belly and a white beard, that somehow magically (and with omnipresence) zips around the world once a year to break into people’s houses through chimneys? Or was he a real person in history named St. Nicholas and a bishop/minister (i.e., an older name for an overseer, minister, or pastor as in 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7) of the gospel in Myra (also spelled Mirea), who lived in the fourth century and was considered a great Christian man and hero of the faith?
Many in society today tend to lean toward the former, largely because of a famous published poem called “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” published in the 1820s–1830s, attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. However, the latter is really the one we (especially Christians) should remember and celebrate, mainly because of his stance on biblical truth and principles commanded by Jesus. The life of St. Nicholas and his great example of faith should not be neglected.
According to Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend),3 also called Lives of the Saints, Volume 11 by Jacobus de Voragine, the Archbishop of Genoa in AD 1275, Nicholas was born sometime in the late third century. Furthermore, he was born in Patras to wealthy Christian parents. His father Epiphanes and mother Johane/Joanna left him a hefty inheritance when they died. Being raised as a devout Christian, he desired to follow Jesus’ command (literally) as recorded in the Bible to give everything to the poor (Matthew 19:21), and so he distributed his entire inheritance to the less fortunate.
According to Legenda Aurea . . . Nicholas was born sometime in the late third century.
At a young age, he was made Bishop of Myra in Lycia and quickly became known for his generosity to those in need, especially children. He had a reputation of throwing bags of money into homes, even sometimes down the chimney, during the night in order to avoid being seen by people (Matthew 6:1–4). I’m sure you can start to see the faint resemblance to the mythological Santa Claus!
We read4 of Nicholas helping a poor man with three daughters to pay their dowries (something of value to offer a prospective husband). Without this, women at that time were unable to marry and typically were sold into slavery or prostitution as a result. As the account goes, Nicholas aided them by tossing bags of gold through a window into the house, which apparently landed in their shoes/stockings left by the fire on three separate occasions. This story may just be a legend (or at least embellished), yet it is still considered plausible and reiterated by many people today.
Nonetheless, the takeaway (embellished or not) is the reputation that Nicholas had for his selfless generosity, which is a fundamental Christian principle we see throughout both the Old Testament (e.g., Deuteronomy 15:11; Psalm 41:1; Proverbs 22:9) and the New Testament (e.g., Romans 12:13; Ephesians 4:28; Hebrews 13:16). Do we see this principle in the Santa Claus celebrated today? Obviously not. Children in society today are told to earn Santa’s favor and gifts, which is clearly the opposite of the biblically motivated actions of the real Nicholas.
The principles that the original St. Nick was known for are clearly a stark contrast to the Santa Claus of today, who represents many things (such as greed, envy, selfishness, etc.) that are completely antithetical to Christianity. But this actually makes sense from a biblical worldview. The Bible says that our enemy Satan, the ruler of this world (John 12:31; Ephesians 2:2), has blinded and ensnared (2 Corinthians 4:4; 2 Timothy 2:26) many in our world to keep them from seeing the light of Jesus and ultimately the gospel.
In other words, Satan has tactfully diverted people’s attention away from what’s really important (the message of Christ made flesh, who dwelt among us to be our perfect sacrifice) and instead dragged them into the commercialism that we see dominating the Christmas season today. But note, this is not to say that Satan rules the world completely; God is still sovereign. Satan is only allowed to operate within the boundaries established by God (e.g., Job 1:12).
St. Nicholas, unlike this mythological Santa Claus, should be recognized and remembered. He was way more than just a generous giver who looked out for children and the poor—he was a genuine hero of the Christian faith.
So the historical St. Nicholas was a real person who was known for generosity and godliness. The divine attributes (omniscience, acting as a judge, omnipresence) applied to Santa Claus are a form of ancestor worship and pagan in their mannerisms. St. Nicholas, unlike this mythological Santa Claus, should be recognized and remembered (1 Thessalonians 5:21). He was much more than just a generous giver who looked out for children and the poor—he was a genuine hero of the Christian faith.
There are many (outlandish) stories that are told about him, such as bringing children back from death and even once calming a mighty storm to save sailors lost at sea. But moving past these miraculous stories/legends to (at least more probable) history, St. Nicholas was a great hero of the Christian faith in the fourth century, known for his passion and zeal for the gospel. According to the small amount of history that’s available, he was one of the major defenders of orthodoxy in the early church against the destructive heresies and idolatrous paganism of that time.
But moving past these miraculous stories/legends to (at least more probable) history, St. Nicholas was a great hero of the Christian faith in the fourth century, known for his passion and zeal for the gospel.
After being elected as a bishop, he immediately started challenging the worshippers of popular Greek/Roman gods (specifically the “goddess” Artemis) at the main temple in his district (i.e., in the public square), calling the people to repentance and faith in Christ. However, this was around the same time (AD 303) when Emperor Diocletian directed the persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire, which resulted in Nicholas being tortured, chained, and thrown into prison with many other Christians.
According to tradition,5 he was regularly beaten to the point of his skin becoming the color of vermilion (ouch!), yet endured this persecution and still managed to selflessly care for others in prison and even intervene on behalf of unjustly charged prisoners. It wasn’t until the Edict of Milan about 10 years later (AD 313), when Emperor Constantine ordered the cessation of all persecution, that Nicholas and other Christians were released from prison. (Just remember this story next time you’re having a bad day!)
Furthermore, Nicholas had a vital role in battling the Arian heresy (an unbiblical belief that rejects the divinity of Christ) that was heavily plaguing the early church. St. Methodius (who lived in the ninth century) had said, “[T]hanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.”
Nicholas supposedly6 attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 (it was here that Arianism was officially declared heresy), where he got into a heated debate with Arius himself about whether there was a time when the Word did not exist (John 1:1–3). And, as the story goes, the debate “ended” when Nicholas punched (knocked out) Arius, laying him out on the council floor! We obviously do not condone that type of behavior (Romans 12:17–19), but we can appreciate his passion for biblical truth!
Finally, Nicholas died on December 6 in Myra around AD 350 and is said to have been buried in his cathedral church. Thus, the anniversary of his death became the date for his Feast Day. And, as the old saying goes, the rest is history.
So this Christmas season, don’t miss the opportunity to tell others about the real St. Nicholas: a passionate but not perfect Christian and hero of the faith who dedicated his life to serving others and whose whole purpose was to point people to the good news of Jesus Christ. This is a great opportunity for parents to tell their children of the godly example that was set by the real St. Nicholas.
We can assume that St. Nicholas was familiar with the amazing words spoken to Joseph:
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20–21)
And the words from the prophet Isaiah, regarding the birth of our Messiah:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6–7)
If you haven’t bent the knee to the Mighty King seated on the throne of David, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2). Repent (turn from your sins) and put your trust in Christ (the same way you would with a parachute), and you will be saved from the wrath of God to come (Romans 5:9). None of us know when we’re going to die, so this is a time-sensitive message. Turn to Christ for life today and give the glory to him who was born in a manger!