Lots of people think that St. Nicholas is just another name for Santa Claus, but it’s not. If you want to know the truth, it’s a lot more fun learning the story of the real St. Nicholas, whose feast day is December 6th.
Behind this name is a boy named Nicholas, who lived about 1700 years ago. Throughout history we have been given many accounts of this boy and his love for God, and the wonderful man that he became.
When Nicholas was a little boy, a plague struck Patara, the town where he lived. Both of his parents soon got sick and died. So Nicholas then went to live with his uncle, who was the leader of a large group of monks at a monastery. This uncle taught him all about God and Jesus from the Bible. Nicholas loved God so much that he also wanted to become a monk when he grew up. Nicholas’ parents died wealthy, so they left him a very large sum of money. Since he loved Jesus so much, Nicholas resolved to give his money to those he found in need…and especially to other children in trouble. As he grew up he remembered the teachings of Jesus…that we should “give in secret,” so he learned how to be very sneaky. Whenever Nicholas gave things to people, he would sneak around so they wouldn’t know where the money came from. Sneaking around to do good is the most fun! For example, a man was selling rugs to pay his debts. His wife and children had no food. Nicholas bought some Turkish rugs from the man, paying him way more than they were worth. Then Nicholas made up an excuse and returned the rugs to the man’s wife without getting his money back. Nicholas helped lots of people and he learned to be very sneaky in doing so.
One of the most famous stories about Nicholas brings to mind three girls who couldn’t get married because their father’s business had lost all its money. In those days, the only way a girl could get married is if she had a big sum of money called a dowry. The only option for these girls was slavery or worse. Nicholas heard about this poor family and came up with a plan. Late at night he tossed a sock full of gold coins through the oldest daughter’s bedroom window. People were surprised when, not long after this, the girl married a good husband. She told them that she was able to marry because she found a dowry hidden away in a sock. Soon after this, Nicholas again tossed another sock full of money through the second daughter’s window. Soon, she also married. But a few nights later, when Nicholas crept up to the house with a sock full of money for the third daughter, he found all the windows were shut. So he did what boys sometimes like to do; he climbed up on their roof and dropped it down the chimney, landing in the girl’s shoes, set next to the hearth. When she married she told everyone she’d found a dowry just lying in her shoe. People were amazed and said to one another, “This must be some kind of miracle!”
Several times Nicholas had a strange dream that was always the same. In his dream, Jesus gave him the robes of a priest and a book of the Gospels covered with jewels. When Nicholas told his uncle of these dreams, his uncle told him that Jesus must want him to become a priest. So he did just that while he was still very young. As a priest, Nicholas was even more zealous to tell people about Jesus and always looking for ways to help people in need or children in trouble. People were always talking about that kind, young priest, Nicholas.
Nicholas went on a trip to see Bible lands. He traveled to Palestine to see the places where Jesus had walked. Nicholas visited with many Christians and churches along the way and inspired them to also help the poor and needy. While there he had a dream that Jesus was placing a bishop’s hat on his head.
On the way home, his ship was caught in a terrible storm. The ship was roughly tossed about and the sails were torn. Some of the sailors were swept overboard by the waves, and the three sailors who were left on the ship were terribly afraid the ship might soon be overturned or crash on the rocks. They were frightened and praying to God for mercy. Nicholas came up on deck and joined them in their prayer. Just then the storm stopped and the waters became calm. The little ship limped into the port at a city called Myra in Lycia. It was a long ways from Nicholas’ home. When they arrived very early in the morning, the three sailors told others in the city how their ship had been saved when young Nicholas the priest had prayed. “It was like a miracle!” they said. But Nicholas had hurried off to the church for morning prayers to give thanks.
In Myra, there used to be a bishop who was very old and had recently died. This was during a time when Christians were being tortured for their faith in Jesus Christ. Because of such troubled times, the priests could not agree on whom to elect as their new bishop. There were several priests at the church that morning. They had been there praying for guidance, and each had the same dream. They each dreamed that the first worshiper who came for morning prayers was to become the new bishop. Nicholas, a stranger in Myra, and still only a young priest, was the first to arrive. How surprised he was when one of the priests came up to tell him that he was to become their next bishop! At first he hesitated, but they told him about the dreams they each had and insisted that he was the one who should become their bishop. Then he told them about his earlier dream with the bishop’s hat. “It’s a miracle!” said the priests. Young Nicholas soon became the bishop of Myra.
Myra was an important city and Nicholas was a good bishop. He was known for his devotion to God and his zeal for Jesus. When he taught about the Good News of Jesus Christ, people said it was like precious gems coming out of his mouth. He cared equally for the poor and needy, helping those in trouble, often still helping people in secret. Through Nicholas’ loving ministry, many pagan people were converted and baptized.
But soon Nicholas was imprisoned. The new Roman Emperor Diocletian hated Christians and was determined to hunt them down and kill them or make them deny their faith. This was around 310 AD. It was one of the greatest persecutions of the Church, and many Christians were cruelly murdered. There were several jailors guarding Nicholas. They tried and tried to convince him to deny his faith in Jesus. They tortured him. He was hungry and cold and wearing chains, but still he kept teaching them about Jesus. He was kind to them despite all of the mean things they said and did to him. His hair and beard grew long and shaggy, but he trusted Jesus to protect him, and prayed for the other Christians to stand firm. Then a miracle happened. There was a new emperor. His name was Constantine. Constantine had a dream that he would conquer through the cross of Christ, and so he became a Christian. He changed the law, so that it would be legal to be a Christian. Nicholas and the other Christians were set free from prison. So Bishop Nicholas went back to his people in Myra. Then many more people were converted to believe in Jesus.
Nicholas was much older now, his beard white, his face wrinkled. But his eyes always sparkled when he talked about Jesus, and he always had some way to help the poor and needy. He loved the people who were under his care…most especially the children. He still tried hard to be sneaky in helping people. However, his good deeds were so plentiful that sometimes people caught him in the act.
Although Nicholas was a gentle soul, he could be firm too, especially when false teachers would try to influence his churches. In 325 AD, a large number of Church’s leaders gathered at Nicaea for a big council. The council was to discuss the bad teaching of a popular false-teacher named Arius. Arius’ unorthodox preaching had infected many people of that day into believing that Jesus wasn’t really God. In the midst of the council’s discussions, it’s said that Nicholas actually punched Arius for guiding people astray with his false teaching. Because of this passionate act of anger, the other bishops there voted to remove Nicholas as bishop. However, Jesus told each of them in dreams that Nicholas had acted in righteous anger and so they restored Nicholas as bishop.
Saint Nicholas died peacefully after a long life of faithful service to Jesus Christ, and offering many kind deeds. In Orthodox tradition, children put their shoes outside their door on the night before his feast day December 6th. In the morning they discover that Saint Nicholas has come to fill their shoes chocolates and little treats.