‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
This is the beginning of the Christmas poem, written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore, that we all know so well. The poem gave a description of a man called St. Nicholas: chubby, plump, twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, cherry nose, white beard, and pipe clenched between his teeth. This was not the traditional image of St. Nicholas, an actual historical figure who lived over 1,700 years ago.
The real St. Nicholas was a small man, barely five feet tall, not at all chubby or plump. He was a bishop who became the Patron Saint of Children known all over the world for his goodness and generosity. He was renowned as a gift-giver, helpful to the poor and needy. Many countries celebrate his feast day, St. Nicholas Day, on December 6th, the date of his death in 343 AD. He didn’t drive a sleigh pulled by reindeer, but he may have ridden a horse or a donkey. Who was this man?
A Christian in Roman Times
Nicholas was born to wealthy, Christian parents in 270 AD in the city of Patara, Greece, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea. The region was Greek in its traditions, culture, and heritage, but it was under the control of the Roman Empire. Christians were persecuted under Roman rule, but a period of tolerance had existed for a few decades until Emperor Diocletian started a general persecution of Christians in 303 AD. Persecution policies varied across the empire, but thousands of Christians were killed, and many more suffered torture, imprisonment or dislocation.
Nicholas grew into a strong and devout Christian during the years of tolerance towards Christianity. His parents died in an epidemic while he was a teenager and being the only son, he inherited their wealth. Little is known of his life, other than the fact that he had worked in the family’s fishing fleet while he was a young man. After he was orphaned, his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, raised him as a staunch Orthodox Christian. He fasted throughout his life, eating only in the evenings on Wednesdays and Fridays. He voraciously read the scriptures, spent his entire days in the church, and in the evenings, he prayed and read books. His uncle was so impressed with his devotion to God that he had Nicholas ordained as a presbyter (priest) and made him his assistant.
When his uncle decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he entrusted the guidance of his flock to Nicholas, who fulfilled this responsibility carefully and with love. When the bishop returned, Nicholas embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While on an Egyptian ship, a storm arose and threatened the lives of passengers and crew. To the delight of his fellow pilgrims, he calmed the sea with his prayers. It is said that a sailor who had fallen from the mast during the storm was also restored to health by his prayers. After his pilgrimage, he returned to Lycia, and entered into the brotherhood of a monastery in Patara (Holy Sion) which was founded by his uncle. He said that the Lord indicated another path for him, “Nicholas, this is not the vineyard where you shall bear fruit for Me. Return to the world, and glorify My Name there.”
He left Patara and went to Myra, Lycia, what is now known as Demre, Turkey. Myra derives its name from the myrrh tree which exudes an aromatic reddish-brown resin, highly valued for its use as a perfume, incense and medication (myrrh was one of the three gifts presented to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men).
Upon the death of Archbishop John of Myra, one of the elders of the Lycian Council stated that the new bishop should be revealed by God and not be chosen by men. He had a vision that the first person to come into the church that night would be made archbishop and his name would be Nicholas. Nicholas, always the first to arrive at church, was stopped by the bishop early the next morning. "Nicholas, servant and friend of God, for your holiness you shall be bishop of this place." They brought him into the church and placed him in the seat where he was consecrated the new Bishop of Myra. This event occurred during the Roman persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century. As the chief priest of the Christians of his town who preached the truth of his faith, Bishop Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, whereupon he was tortured, chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians.
When Constantine became the Roman Emperor in 306 AD, he adopted a more tolerant policy towards Christianity. He returned property taken from Christians and released prisoners. Nicholas returned to his flock in Myra. The “Edict of Milan” was issued in 313 AD, which ended all persecutions of Christians in Asia Minor. Despite the efforts of the Romans to quell Christianity, the Church continued to thrive.
Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God, following the words of Jesus who said, “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” His rich inheritance allowed him to make secret gifts to those in need. His generosity and kindness were well known, and there are many legends about how he helped the poor and less fortunate, about his love for children, and about his concern for sailors and ships.
The following contemporary prayer reveals what is known of the man:
“Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”
In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, which was the first ecumenical council ever held. More than 300 bishops from all over the Christian world came to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity, one of the early church's most intense theological questions. The following account is given by the Saint Nicholas Center:
“Arias, from Egypt, taught that the Son Jesus was not equal to God the Father. This was the Arian controversy that shook Christianity's very foundations. According to one account, when confronted by the unyielding Arias, Nicholas slapped him in the face. For such a breach of decorum, Nicholas was brought before Constantine, who stripped him of his office and had him thrown into prison. During the night, Jesus with his Mother Mary appeared to Nicholas: Jesus bringing the book of the Gospels, and Mary, the bishop's stole which had been taken from him. In this way, Nicholas was reinstated. Many Eastern Church icons of St. Nicholas (like the one at the left) reflect this event with Jesus on the left returning the Gospels, and Mary on the right, bringing the bishop's stole or omophorion.”
During his life, Nicholas worked many miracles and performed many good deeds of which a few are recounted here.
Miracle of Wheat Multiplication
Famine struck Myra in 311-312 AD after crops had failed, and people were desperately hungry. Bishop Nicholas learned that ships bound for Alexandria with cargo of wheat had anchored in the harbour. He implored the sailors to take a measure of grain from each ship so that people would have food, promising them that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration. The sailors agreed, and to their astonishment, the full weight of cargo was accounted for at their destination – despite the fact that enough grain had been unloaded to feed the people of Myra for two years, with enough left for planting new crops!
The Sailors’ Friend
A ship in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was caught in a storm and forced into shallow waters where it became grounded. Sailors were unable to manoeuvre it back into deeper water. Since accounts of Bishop Nicholas' help to distressed sailors had already spread far and wide, the sailors called on Nicholas for aid, hoping they might be saved by his prayer and intervention. An image of Nicholas appeared on the ship and together they retied and strengthened the ropes holding the masts, and worked with poles to pry the ship away from the threatening rocks into deeper water. The image of Nicholas vanished once the ship was freed and set sail.
Saving Three Innocent Men
Upon his return from Andriaki, the port that served Myra, Bishop Nicholas was informed that three innocent men were about to be executed. The men were in position with their faces covered and their hands bound behind them. The executioner's sword was up and ready to fall.Nicholas fearlessly went up to the executioner and took his sword, throwing it to the ground. The Prefect Eustathios, denounced by Bishop Nicholas for accepting bribes and nearly causing the deaths of three innocent men, repented and begged for forgiveness.
Tax Relief for Myra
In Constantinople, Nicholas convinced the emperor to lower the taxes on the people of Myra. He was given the order on a sheet of parchment, which he immediately took to the sea and threw into the water. It was fished out of the sea near Myra, taken to the proper authorities, and the order was immediately put into effect. Emperor Constantine, on the advice of his finance ministers, summoned Nicholas back and asked to have the parchment returned. Constantine could not believe that the order was already in effect, so he sent a runner to determine if this was true. Upon learning that it was so, the order was allowed to stand.
A citizen of Patara had three daughters, but he had lost all his money. The prospect of his daughters finding suitable husbands was unlikely because his poverty would not allow him to provide a sufficient dowry. Many women in similar situations were forced into prostitution in order to support themselves. The father didn’t want this to happen to his girls, but he saw no possible way out of the situation. This came to the ears of Nicholas, who thereupon took a bag of gold and, under cover of darkness on Christmas Eve, tossed it through an open window of the man's house. Other versions of the story say that he dropped it down the chimney. All versions make reference to the possibility that the bag fell into a shoe or sock drying beside the fireplace. The gold provided a sufficient dowry for the eldest girl and she was soon married. At intervals, Nicholas did the same for the second and third daughters.
This story led to the custom of children hanging stockings or setting out shoes, hoping to receive gifts from Saint Nicholas. Today children often receive chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper in their Christmas stockings, a tradition that reflects the generosity of Saint Nicholas.
Other versions of the story say that Nicholas tossed a gold ball into the house on each of the three occasions. An orange, which has the same shape and colour of a gold ball, is often put into the toe of a Christmas stocking – a tradition that is derived from this gift-giving story of St. Nicholas. Many paintings of the saint often depict him with three gold balls, or three oranges (as in the picture above), because of this story.
The Protector of Children
One of the oldest stories portraying St. Nicholas as a protector of children takes place long after his death. On the eve of his feast day, a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into Myra and stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios into slavery. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer since Basilios, unfamiliar with the language, would not understand what the king said to those around him. Basilios' parents were devastated at the loss of their only child. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy; however, she did have a simple observance at home with quiet prayers for Basilios' safekeeping. The story says that as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks to the emir, St. Nicholas appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and whisked him away - setting him down at his home back in Myra, still holding the king's golden cup!
Restoring the Lives of Three Children
Another story tells of three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. During the night, he dreamt of the crime, arose and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God, the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. In France, the story is told of three small children who were lured, captured and killed by an evil butcher. St. Nicholas appeared, and his appeal to God resulted in their return to life and reunification with their families.
And so St. Nicholas is the patron and protector of children.
The Death of Bishop Nicholas
Bishop Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his crypt. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar). Nicholas' tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.
Because of the many conflicts and attacks in the region, Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. In the spring of 1087, sailors succeeded in spiriting away many of the bones of Nicholas, bringing them to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy. An impressive church, the Basilica di San Nicola, was built over the crypt of St. Nicholas. This shrine was one of medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centres and Nicholas became known as "Saint in Bari." To this day pilgrims and tourists still visit the site.
After the Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) was the schism within Western Christianity that was sparked by the 1517 posting of Luther's “Ninety-Five Theses.” The Reformation spread across Europe over the course of the 16th century.
By mid century, Lutheranism dominated northern and eastern Europe. After the Reformation, devotion to Nicholas disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinter Klaas (a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas).
St. Nicholas to Santa Claus
Dutch colonists took the Sinter Klaas tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the 17th century. The English settlers, many of whom were Presbyterians, were not willing to adopt the figure of a Catholic saint and bishop. Sinter Klaas was adopted by the country’s English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, a character based on the pagan Germanic god Thor from old mythology – not the image of the warrior Thor who is depicted in comic books and current Marvel movies!
Thor, the god of the common man, was represented as elderly, jovial and portly with a long, white beard. The rumble of thunder was caused by his chariot, which was drawn by two white goats. Yes, goats! Because he fought the giants of ice and snow, he became known as the Yule-god. He lived in the “Northland” in an ice palace. Pagans considered him to be helpful to humans. Their fireplaces were sacred: Thor was believed to come down chimneys into his element - fire. The resulting image, based on Thor, crystallized into the figure known as Santa Claus in the 19th century, and he has since remained the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas.
In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly, began drawing a series of black and white pictures of Santa Claus. He continued to draw versions of Santa Claus until 1886, setting forth the first images of this character. Today’s image of Santa Claus can be traced back to his early sketches.
Meanwhile, in Europe, St. Nicholas became popular again in the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories and legends.
St. Nicholas Day – December 6th
Within a century of his death, Bishop Nicholas was celebrated as a saint. Today he is venerated in the East as a wonder, or miracle worker and in the West as patron of a great variety of persons - children, mariners, bankers, pawnbrokers, scholars, orphans, labourers, travelers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, even thieves and murderers! He is known as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need. He is best known as the Patron Saint of Children, and the Patron Saint of Russia. Through the centuries, St. Nicholas continues to be revered by Catholics and Orthodox, and honoured by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas remains a model for the compassionate life.
Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, keeps the stories of his goodness and generosity alive. To this day in Germany and Poland, boys dress up as bishops begging for alms for the poor -- and sometimes for themselves! In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrives on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse delivering gifts to children. Good children receive treats (gingerbread cookies, candies, nuts, apples, oranges) and naughty children receive switches or lumps of coal. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in the front door), chocolates in the form of the first initial of people's names, small gifts, and riddles.
Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for St. Nicholas' horse or donkey, hoping he will exchange them for small gifts. In some households, the father may dress up as St. Nicholas; he enters the home on the eve of St. Nicholas Day to help children examine their consciences, or review their catechism. This tradition helps to inspire children, early in Advent, to improve their behaviour.
The life of Bishop Nicholas of Myra, a devout Christian who lived 1,700 years ago, still strongly influences the spirit of giving and goodness that permeates the Christmas season in many countries of the world.
The simple gift giving in early Advent, on St. Nicholas Day, helps preserve a Christmas Day that focuses on the Christ Child. In North America, the focus on Santa Claus at Christmas may distract from the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
St. Nicholas’ crosier (the staff, surmounted by a hook) is the model for candy canes that we nibble at Christmas time. Our stockings, hung by the chimney in the hope that St. Nicholas “soon will be there,” reflect the story of his gift giving. Saint Nicholas is a part of our Christmas celebrations: perhaps the man himself is the better model for the true spirit of Christmas.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
(A Visit from Saint Nicholas)
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,