Saint Nicholas, Bishop
c. Third–Fourth Century
December 6—Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of Russia, sailors, merchants, and children
Santa Claus signed the Nicene Creed
Traditions the world over are so embedded in the rhythms of daily life that their ubiquity goes unnoticed. Why a birthday cake with lighted candles? Why make a wish and then blow those candles out? The origin of this charming tradition is obscure. Why shake hands, toast by clinking glasses, cross fingers for good luck, or have bridesmaids? The sources of many traditions are so historically remote and culturally elusive as to allow diverse interpretations of their meaning. Today’s saint is without doubt, however, the man behind the massively celebrated tradition of Santa Claus, the most well-known Christmas figure after Jesus and the Three Kings. Santa Claus’ mysterious nocturnal visits to lavish children with gifts at Christmastime is not a tradition whose origin is lost in the mists of history. It is a tradition firmly rooted in Christianity.
Little is known about the life of Saint Nicholas. It is certain, though, that he was the Catholic Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the early fourth century. It is likely that he suffered for the faith under the persecution of Diocletian. He later attended the Council of Nicea in 325. “Nicholas of Myra of Lycia” appears on one of the earliest and most reliable lists of the Bishops at Nicea. A legend states that Nicholas was punished by his superiors for slapping the heretic Arius at the Council. At his death he was buried in his see city. Less than a century later, a church was built in his honor in Myra and became a site of pilgrimage. And the emperor Justinian, in the mid-500s, renovated a long existing church dedicated to Saint Nicholas in Constantinople. In Rome, a Greek community was worshipping in a basilica dedicated to Saint Nicholas around 600. The church can still be visited today. These churches, and hundreds of others named for Saint Nicholas, prove that devotion to our saint was widespread not long after his death.
When Myra was overrun by Muslim Turks in the 1000s, there was a risk that the saint’s bones would disappear. So in 1087, sailors from Bari, Italy, committed a holy theft and moved Saint Nicholas’ relics to their own hometown. In 1089 the Pope came to Bari to dedicate a new church to Saint Nicholas. Just a few years later, Bari became the rendezvous point for the First Crusade. Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of travelers and sailors, making him popular with the crusading knights. These knights, in turn, brought the devotion to Saint Nicholas they learned in Bari back to their villages dotting the countryside of central and western Europe. Thus it happened that a saint famous mostly in the east and along the shores of the Mediterranean became, in ways not totally understood, the source of gift-giving traditions that perdure until today in every corner of Europe.
Legends state that Nicholas saved three sisters from lives of shame by secretly dropping small sacks of gold through their family’s window at night, thus giving each of the girls a marriage dowry. Other legends relate that Nicholas secretly put coins in shoes that were left out for him. Nicholas’ legacy of gift giving became a Central European and Anglo-Saxon expression of the gift giving formerly exclusive to the Three Kings. Christmas night gift giving in northern lands thus slowly replaced the more biblically solid tradition of gift giving on the Feast of the Epiphany more popular in Southern Europe and lands which inherited its traditions.
The antiquity of the Church means it has played a matchless role in the formation of Western culture, a role that no faux holidays or new “tradition” can replicate. Santa Claus has roots. He wears red for the martyrs. He dons a hat resembling a bishop’s mitre. He often holds a sceptre similar to a bishop’s crozier. And he distributes gifts to children in humble anonymity on the night of Christ’s birth. Old Saint Nick, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus is real, in one sense. In all likelihood he signed the Nicene Creed. Our “Santa,” then, was an orthodox Catholic bishop who argued in favor of correct teaching about God as a Trinity. That was his first and most lasting gift to mankind.
Saint Nicholas, your service as a bishop included not only teaching correctly the mysteries of our faith, but also generous and humble charity in alleviating the material needs of your neighbor. Help all of us to combine good theology with Christian action like you did.