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Discovering the Real St. Nick

The inspiring story behind the Santa Claus legend

Jeremy Stein on December 16, 2020

If you ever travel to the region, it is possible to visit the home of one of the most famous saints of all time: St. Nicholas. It is nowhere near the North Pole. It’s in the temperate coastal city of ancient Myra, in southern Turkey.

Nicholas was the presiding bishop of the city. His Christian life inspired the legend of Santa Claus. Much of what is celebrated about Nicholas today is nothing more than fanciful embellishment. However, somewhat reliable streams of tradition, ancient writings, and iconography lend to an understanding of the man behind the myths.

Born in the waning years of the third century, Nicholas grew into adulthood during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who severely persecuted the Church.

Most historians agree Nicholas did endure some form of persecution during his early adult years. Some accounts suggest he endured imprisonment and brutal beatings from the Romans. Nicholas was not venerated because of his suffering, however. He is remembered primarily for his compassion, mercy, and charity — and especially for a good deed Nicholas did even before he assumed the bishop’s role.

Nicholas was born into a wealthy family. His parents died when Nicholas was still young, and he inherited a large fortune. In fact, Nicholas became one of the wealthiest individuals in the region.

Acts 2:45 describes believers in the Early Church doing what the rich young ruler of the Gospels could not: selling property and possessions to further the work of the Kingdom. Years after these events, some Christians sought to live out the Acts 2:45 model as a lifestyle.

There were reports of Christ followers generously sharing their resources in places like Smyrna. Nicholas may have subscribed to this way of life.

According to tradition, Nicholas was also drawn to the Proverbs, especially Proverbs 22, which emphasizes compassion and justice for the poor.

Ancient sources describe how a neighbor of Nicholas, who was among the Christ followers of Myra, lost his wealth because of an act of evil against him. Impoverished, the neighbor and his three unmarried daughters were facing starvation.

Nicholas was drawn to Proverbs 22, which emphasizes compassion and justice for the poor.

Even though the daughters were beautiful, financial realities made marriage unlikely for them. There was no money for a dowry, and any man who married one of the women would assume the family’s financial burden.

Although the father of the women had always lived his life in obedience to God, the situation pushed him to desperation. Sources say the father “lost sight of his salvation” and sought to prostitute his daughters for their survival.

Nicholas was grieved to hear of these events and concocted a plan to rescue the family. Wanting to remain anonymous and spare the family any further shame, Nicholas waited until the dead of night. He dropped a large sum of money — enough to provide a dowry for the eldest daughter — through a window of the house.

Upon seeing the money the next morning, the father is said to have been overwhelmed with “ungovernable tears.” He immediately found a groom for his daughter, which brought significant relief to the family.

However, Nicholas did not stop there. He returned and quietly left a sum of money for the middle daughter’s dowry. The father was even more shocked than the first time. The most trusted of all the traditions says the man knew he had seen true mercy from the Father and experienced the immeasurable grace of God.

Nevertheless, the mission of mercy was not over for Nicholas. On another evening, he came to deliver a third dowry. But this time, Nicholas did not go undiscovered. When he dropped the money through the window, the father ran after Nicholas, throwing himself at his feet, weeping profusely, and thanking Nicholas for his actions.

Still modeling an attitude of Christ, Nicholas reminded the man that the blessings he had received were ultimately from the Father above. Despite the man’s moral failure, he had experienced the grace of God.

Nicholas told the man not to speak of these events. Nevertheless, the story eventually became widely known. Years later, a tradition arose of giving gifts on Dec. 6, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death. This was intended to honor the life he lived and inspire others to imitate his loving example.

Over the centuries, the story of St. Nicholas is easy to miss amid the Santa Claus legend. However, his example can still inspire us to share the love of Christ with others during the holiday season and throughout the year.

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