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a Short History of St. Nicholas

Young Nicholas was born around 275 A.D. and named for his uncle Nicholas, an Abbot at the monastery near his families home. According to different accounts, Nonna and Theopanes, his parents prayed for some thirty years for a child and had nearly given up hope when Nonna became pregnant. Nicholas was the only child born to his wealthy parents, who dedicated him to God and determined to raise him to be loving and God-fearing. They lived in the city of Patara, in Asia Minor, on the eastern Mediterranean coast (now known as Turkey).

As young Nicholas grew in age, he became very close to his uncle and spent much of his time at the monastery learning about God. When Nicholas was a young teenager, his parents died of the plague so he went to live with his uncle at the monastery.

Many of the stories of Nicholas tell how he had given away much of his inherited wealth even before he became a priest. The most famous story comes while he was still a very young man. There was a man who had been quite rich, but had lost everything. This man had three daughters who were coming of age and needed dowries to be married. The better the dowry for the bride, the better the husband she would marry. But because this man had lost all his wealth, he no longer could provide dowries for his daughters. Without dowries, the girls would not find husbands and would have to be sold as servants or even prostitutes.

When Nicholas learned of this, he determined to help this family and these three young maidens. Late one night when everyone was sleeping, he snuck over to the family's home and tossed a bag of gold coins in through the window for the eldest daughter to have a dowry. As the story goes, quite by accident the bag landed in the girl's stocking hung over the fireplace. Of course, in the morning when the father and the daughters awoke and the eldest daughter found a bag of gold coins in her stocking where there had been none the night before, they were all very happy but wondered who put the bag there.

This encounter explains why we hang stockings up on a fireplace mantle on Christmas Eve. In the time of St. Nicholas, children hung their socks up to dry at the end of the day. And it also tells us why Santa comes through the chimneys, though the actual story tells us that he had tossed the bag of gold in through an open window.

A few nights later, Nicholas paid another visit to this family and tossed another bag of gold in through the window for the middle daughter. Again the father and daughters were overwhelmed with delight and wondered who was bringing these gifts.

On another night, Nicholas paid yet one last visit to this family, but the father had determined to find who it was that was giving his daughters these wonderful presents. As Nicholas snuck up to the house and prepared to toss in the bag of gold, the father surprised him and thus learned who their generous benefactor was.

Nicholas had determined to give the gifts secretly and asked the father to keep the secret. Because of this story and many others like it, Nicholas became known through-out the region as the “gift giver” and lover of children. This story explains why Santa does all of his gift giving late at night when all the children have gone to bed so his efforts can be done in secret.

In time with his studies at the monastery, his great love of God and his love of people in the region, Nicholas became a priest.

One morning as Nicholas was entering the church for the time of prayer, he was met by waiting bishops. The wisest of the bishops had had a dream the previous night and God had revealed to him that the first person to enter the church that morning by the name of Nicholas was to be selected and ordained as the new bishop, replacing the one who had recently died.

As the account goes, Nicholas at first protested, saying he was too young and too inexperienced and not worthy of such an honor. But all the bishops agreed it was God's will for Nicholas to be ordained as the new bishop; hence, he was formally consecrated as bishop of Myra.

A bishop is a very honored man and is responsible for many churches, priests and people in a region. St. Nicholas was a good bishop because of his great love for others, his example of sacrificial generosity and his care for the poor and needy where he lived.

As Bishop of Myra, Nicholas served faithfully the people of the region. It is said that he fully exemplified Christ in all he did: in his continued generous giving, in his defense of the faith by attackers and in his faithful teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sometime around the year 303A.D., Bishop Nicholas was imprisoned under the reign of Emperor Diocletian and spent five years in solitary confinement. Orders had been given by the Emperor that all people throughout the land were to worship the Roman gods. All over the Roman Empire, Christians were faced with imprisonment because they refused to worship anything except the one true and living God. Diocletian and Galerius intended the order as a direct persecution of Christianity. Many Christians around the empire were imprisoned, including Bishop Nicholas.

Diocletian resigned in 305 A.D. and Constantine became the new Emperor the following year. Constantine began releasing the Christians from prison and Nicholas was finally freed from his solitary confinement sometime around 308 A.D.

When he was released, Nicholas determined to rid the region of the many false gods and idols of the Romans and concentrated his energies on the temple of Artemis. With deliberate force and zeal, he began by removing the idols, shrines and such, and in the end, completely destroyed the great temple, leaving little trace of it.

While he was commonly known for his great generosity, there are many stories of how he lived his faith before others and spent much of his day looking after the needs of the townspeople.

During his life Nicholas had many miracles attributed to him, among them healing of a woman's withered hand, exorcising demons, saving travelers and a ship from an overwhelming storm, saving three generals from death, and provision of grain to the region in a time of great famine.

Many things have been attributed to and written of Nicholas, both during his life and after his death. But what stands out about him was his great love of people and children. He gave himself fully to the ministry because of God's love for him and his love of God.

In turn, he was greatly loved and respected. Nicholas was a man of great moral character. Many of the stories show him to be a very humble and loving man who tried to avoid people's praise and adulation. He always tried to do the right thing and always tried to encourage others to do the same.

When people see someone living out the faith that they embrace, others greatly respect them and tell others about that person as well. People see a genuine difference in them, a genuine love and caring for others. So it was for Nicholas.

Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, which was a seaport on the Mediterranean Sea. Ships from all over the empire would dock to trade or to pick up goods for export. As sailors would come into the region and hear of Nicholas and perhaps even meet him at the docks, they would go tell others of this wonderful man in their travels.

As the sailors took the stories of St. Nicholas throughout the Roman Empire, he became an example of love and generosity that was characteristic of Christians and changed the culture of the time.

Nicholas died on December 6 th , 343 A.D. He had lived his life considering the interests of others as more important than his own. That he became so revered during his life and over the many centuries after probably would not have been to his wishes because he was known as a very humble man. His actions were done under cover of darkness, in secret to bless others. And he gave sacrificially all that he had. That he was found out was not how he wanted it. Nicholas was never formally canonized as a saint, but people made him their saint.

But then again, even Jesus tells his disciples to live in such a way that the light of their lives, the light of the world, will become known to all men. The light of a Christian life is the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And that is probably the greatest truth of all, that others can see the love of God in us.

Nicholas certainly lived in this manner.*

*One of the best and most easily accessible resources for knowing more about Saint Nicholas can be found online at www.stnicholascenter.org

* In the 1860s, Thomas Nast drew Santa with the red and white suit that he now wears.

 

 

 

 

 

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