St. Nicholas: A Presentation at Christmas
On Dec. 13, 2023, Kurt Rutz explained Saint Nicholas to Marlin Rotarians. All tuned in for a fascinating lecture.
According to the best estimates, Nicholas was born around 280 AD in Patara, in Asia Minor. He later became bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas, it seems, died about 343 AD on or near December 6.
Why was Nicholas famous? It’s difficult to know the truth and nothing but the truth, but this is some of the legend of St. Nicholas:
He was reputed to be a wonder-worker who brought children back to life. He is reputed to have destroyed pagan temples and saved sailors from death at sea. Fantastic legend claims he, as an infant, nursed only two days a week and fasted the other five days.
Moving from probable legend to possible history, Nicholas was honored for enduring persecution. It is said he was imprisoned during the Empire-wide persecution under Diocletian and Maximian. He was released and reportedly on his return, the people flocked around him, exclaiming, “Nicholas! Confessor! Saint Nicholas has come home!”
Nicholas was also recognized as a generous gift giver. Born into a wealthy family, he inherited a fortune when his parents died. Apparently, he gave his vast fortune away. The most famous story involved three girls whose family could provide no dowries; the parents were so poor that their daughters were in all probability destined for a life of prostitution. But Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the window as dowries for the young women.
Nicholas preferred anonymity. And it remained that way - for a while.
Over time, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of nations like Russia and Greece, cities like Fribourg and Moscow, and of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers (the three gold balls hung outside pawn shops are symbolic of the three bags of gold).
In honor of St. Nicholas the gift giver, Christians began to celebrate December 6 (his feast day) by giving presents. The tradition developed over time. For good boys and girls, St. Nicholas would come in his red Bishop’s robe and fill boots with gifts on the night of December 5.
The Reformation was less than friendly toward the traditions that had been built up around the saints. The veneration of St. Nicholas virtually disappeared in Protestant Europe, with the exception of one country: the Netherlands.
The Dutch held on to their tradition and brought it with them to the New World. In the Netherlands, the name Saint Nicolaas was contracted to Sinterklaas.
Santa Claus became the Santa we know in the United States only after the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written in 1823. Possibly the best-known verses ever written by an American, the poem has greatly influenced the tradition of Santa in the English-speaking world and beyond.
In the end, we know little about St. Nicholas, but clearly he would not be pleased to think he had eclipsed Christ in the hearts of many as the central figure of Christmas! He has not. It is Christmas.