Thursday, December 6, 2012

LID: Who is the real #SaintNicholas?

Intocht van Sinterklaas in Schiedam 2009
by Sander Van Der Wel

December 6

Saint Nicholas Day

Jolly Ole Saint Nicholas. In America, we know him as Santa Claus. The heavyset Santa Claus Americans have come to grow and love never existed before Thomas Nast immortalized the image in his depiction of the American Santa Claus in his illustration for the January 3, 1863 Harper's Weekly. 

January 3, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus

The name Santa Claus was first used in the American Press to describe this mystical figure in 1773. Before that he was known as Sinterklauss. In Germany and other European cultures Santa is still known as Sinterklauss. He is known by other names around the world. For information of Santa's other names you can visit this site: 

No matter what you call him, the legend of Santa Claus would not be in existence had it not been for a Catholic Bishop in the 4th century known as Saint Nicholas.

Who is Saint Nicholas?

Nicholas was born on the Ides of March in 270AD at Patara in the ancient country of Lycian. Today the ancient country of Lycian is located in modern Turkey.  Patara was visited by Saint Paul in his third mission trip. You can learn more about Nicholas' hometown here:

Mosaic of Nicholas from Turkey
Nicholas was a Greek born into a wealthy family. The identity of his parents are a mystery. Some accounts list them as Epiphanius  and Johanna while others say his parents were Theophanes and Nonna. 

Although Nicholas had been born in Patara he was raised in Myra. During Nicholas' lifetime, Myra was a bustling metropolis of ancient Lycian. Located on the Myros River it had a bustling river port. In 60 AD,  Saint Paul had changed vessels on his way or trial in Rome after he had been arrested in Jerusalem for inciting a riot.  The Roman Emperor Hadrian had visited Myra in 131AD and built a huge granary at Andriance. You can still see the granary today. You can learn more about ancient Myra at:

Nicholas’ parents died of an epidemic when he was a young man. He received a large inheritance from his parents. As a devout believer, Nicholas decided to follow Jesus command in Matthew 19:21. “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” Nicholas decided to give his inheritance to the poor, needy, and desperate. In his search for those in need heard about a widower with three daughters who had lost all his money. The man could not afford a dowry for his daughters. A dowry was money, goods and estate that a woman brought to the marriage. Her family would give her dowry to her husband’s family. Without a dowry a woman could not get married. In desperation, the father had decided he would sell his daughters into prostitution. Upon hearing the man’s story, Nicholas took a bag of gold and went to the man’s house in the middle of the night. He throw a bag of gold into the man’s window then disappeared. The eldest daughter was married shortly after. Nicholas returned another night and did the same thing for the second daughter. On the third night, the father had been waiting by the window to see who his mysterious benefactor was. When Nicholas had reached the window with the third bag of coins the father overwhelmed him with gratitude.
Nicholas, Russian Icon 1920's

After Nicholas spread his inheritance, Nicholas' uncle, the archbishop of Myra and also named Nicholas, took him into his home and raised him. The archbishop tonsured his nephew's hair and charged him as a reader. A reader was someone who read the scriptures aloud in the church. It was a valuable position to have during Nicholas' time because literacy was was rare. While Nicholas was a young man he made pilgrimages to Egypt and Palestine. When he returned his uncle ordained him as a priest and appointed him as the abbot of a monastery.

Nicholas's uncle died in the beginning of the fourth century. The clergy and people of Myra had gathered afterwards to chose a new bishop. Nicholas had been in Myra during the gathering. The appointment of the new bishop also coincided with the Roman Emperor Diocletian persecution of Christians. Nicholas was appointed to fill his uncle's vacancy.

In his leadership, according to Greek writers, "the divine Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with other Christians. But when the great and religious Constantine, chosen by God, assumed the imperial diadem of the Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with them the illustrious Nicholas." Nicholas returned to Myra and continued to serve as Archbishop of Myra.

As bishop, recalling his own life as a young orphan, Nicholas held a special place in his heart for all children. He would give money and small gifts to all children, especially orphans. He also continued to provide dowries to women who couldn't afford one of their own, thus saving them from a life of prostitution.

 Nicholas not only served over the church but also in temporal matters. One day the governor had been bribed to execute three innocent men. On the day of their execution, Nicholas stopped the executioner from taking their lives. Nicholas turned on the governor so sternly that the governor repented.

Saint Nicholas of Myra saves three innocents from death by:Ilya Repin 1888

 Nicholas died on December 6, 345AD in Myra and was buried in Myra.  Immediately after Nicholas body was entombed a transparent water began to spill out of his bones. Known as the Manna di S. Nicola, the oil is reported to have healing powers.  You can learn more about this occurrence at

Sarcophagus of Saint Nicholas
 Two centuries later after Nicholas' death a feast was being held in honor and the Saint Nicholas Church had been erected over his tomb. A writer in the tenth century wrote this about Nicholas, "The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the farthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are erected in his honor." Nicholas' body remained underneath the church until 1087 when Bari seaman broke into Nicholas' tomb and stole his bones. They transferred them to their own city. The seamen landed in Bari on May 9, 1087 where they handed the saint's relic to their archbishop. The archbishop deposited Nicholas' bones within the Church of St. Stephen, where they are still located to this day. Nicholas' bones still drip the Manna di S. Nicola. 


  1. Loved the article! My family celebrates St. Nicholas Day every year. It's a great way to teach the kids history!

    1. Thank you. I have never celebrated it nor heard much about it. My grandparents were from Germany. I'm sure at one time or another they had celebrated it.