The Legend of Saint Nicholas: AKA Santa Claus

Most of us think we know who Santa Clause is: That big, jolly, present-giving gentleman who seems to have an endless love for children. Of course, then there is that Santa who seems to be overly involved in commercialism who is out selling everything from products at a hardware store to luxury cars. People can be forgiven if they feel confused about whether Santa is being exploited, or they are being exploited by Santa. Many people may think that Santa Claus is some character in a book we decided to draft into our Christmas madness. It might surprise many that Santa Claus is based on a real person. A man who was truly generous and kind. Though obscured by the mists of time, there was once this extraordinary man …

They say his origins lie in Greece and his name was Nicholas. He was born in the village of Patara during the third century. And, the miracles and generosity shown during his lifetime would leave such a mark on those who knew him that his name would echoed down through the centuries. Though we in the West tend to call him Santa Claus, the real person who brought us the spirit of the kind, loving, jolly old man was Saint Nicholas.

Santa Claus

The Modern Santa Claus

We seem to have tried to bury the ‘real’ Santa Claus in our own mythology – that he lives at the North Pole and has an army of elves building toys for the good little boys and girls – that he has flying reindeer and comes down chimneys. All that mythology is wonderful (and kids love it) but the real, original Santa Claus, AKA Saint Nicholas, was an even more inspiring figure and it is in some ways a shame we don’t take the time to share his story with all who’ll listen.

The Poor Man and His Three Daughters

Nicholas came from a wealthy family, however, his parents died in an epidemic when he was only small and all their wealth went to him. Being a religious man, some say he was imbued with the true Christ spirit, and Nicholas found there were more important things in life than money. Over time, he would give away all his wealth.

One example of his philanthropy is the tale of a poor man and his three daughters. At the time, tradition dictated that a woman’s father had to offer her potential husband a dowry. Without such a gift being given a woman would remain single and thus, in the harsh way of the time, be forced into servitude, or even prostitution. Life was hard and could be brutally short. Kindness, love for one’s fellow man was in short supply.

Nicholas decided he needed to help this man and his daughters. Not wanting to offend the father’s dignity by offering him money directly, Nicholas secretly threw gold coins through the father’s window the night before each daughter was to come-of-age and be married. The legend goes that the gold apparently landing in stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry. This is where we got the tradition of hanging stocking over the fireplace the night before Christmas. We reenact the goodness and generosity of Saint Nick, both in the giving and receiving.

Some say that the father, by the time the third daughter was about to come-of-age, decided he needed to meet this kind benefactor. So, the father lay in hiding near the window where gold was thrown into his home. However, the cagey Nicholas never looked for thanks and preferred to operate in secret. Sensing the father’s ambush at the window, Nicholas snuck on to the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney. As you may have guessed, from this story we adopted the mythology of Santa landing on the roof and bring presents down the chimney.

Bishop Nicholas and the Sea

Nicholas would not only be immortalized as Santa Claus, he would also go on to become the Patron Saint of sailors. Early in life Nicholas decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He would go on to be named a bishop of the church. On his return trip to the city of Myra by sea, a storm arose. The storm became so sever that the sailors became terrified. Nicholas as them to be calm and began to pray. Suddenly, the waves and wind calmed. The sailors were amazed. The story of Nicholas’ feat spread and in time Saint Nicholas would become the patron saint of sailors and voyagers. Shrines would be built along the Mediterranean coast.

Saint Nicholas and The Famine of Myra

Protecting the innocent and children, bringing comfort to the suffering and feeding the hungry. One impressive story of Nicholas is during a famine in his homeland of Myra. The people were starving. Nicholas noticed a large ship anchored off the coast that just so happened to be filled with wheat. There was just one problem, the wheat was destined for the Emperor of Byzantium and the sailors aboard had been tasked to weigh it at the start and end of their journey to ensure that none had been taken or lost. Failure to deliver the entire load of wheat would result in sever punishment for the ship and crew.

Nicholas boarded the ship and begged for their help to feed the starving citizens of Myra. If the sailors would only share a portion of the wheat they were carrying, so much suffering could be ended. The sailors explained the difficult situation they were in. One has to wonder if the story of Nicholas calming the seas and saving another group of sailors played some role in what happened next. Nicholas promised the sailors that no harm would come to them if they gave just a small portion of the wheat to feed his starving people. The sailors agreed to share a small portion and the much need food was unloaded.

There is more to this story. When the ship reached it’s destination and the wheat unloaded for the Emperor of Byzantium the weight of the load had not changed since the start of their journey. Additionally, the wheat left in Myra would last the citizens two full years, more than enough time for the city to recover from the famine conditions.

Saint Nicholas – More Than Just Santa Claus

In his time, numerous miraculous events would become attributed to Nicholas. At the heart of all his fame was a common thread: Caring for the less fortunate, protecting the innocent. He would suffer false accusations and imprisonment and confront the most powerful people in the known world, yet he would not back down from doing what he felt was right. He would be canonized and recognized as a Saint within a year of his death.

When it is Time to Stop Believing in Santa Claus

It customary in the U.S. as well as other countries to allow kids to believe in Santa Claus until childhood’s end. There always seems to be a debate about whether to allow kids to believe in fantastical people such as the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. In the case of Santa Claus we are not talking about a mythological figure, but a historical one.

Saint Nicholas

The Historical Saint Nicholas

Maybe when kids out grow believing in Santa Claus it is time to tell them that once there was a real man upon whom the Santa Claus myth is based. And, that his name was Nicholas. Tell the kids that this man named Nicholas was an extraordinary person who deeply believed in the importance of giving of one’s self to help others.

It doesn’t matter what religion you are (or if you are religious at all). What Nicholas accomplished in his life in the pursuit of helping others is impressive, and the message important. The Santa Claus myth is fun, it is great for Christmas, but the Santa myth is a mere shadow of the real man who lived in the brutal times of the third century and managed to become legendary not for war or because he was royalty, but for his kindness and love for his fellow man. It is that loving kindness we recreate, and celebrate, every Christmas. Kids may be disappointed to discover there was no such thing as Santa Claus, but introducing them to the man behind the myth might prove an important lesson for children becoming adults who have to live in ‘the real world’. In the real world there really was a kindly old man named Saint Nicholas who gave all for others … who did what was right, not just what was profitable … just like Santa, only better.

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