Bishop Nicholas of Myra: Legends and sources

The Legend of Bishop Nicholas of Myra: A telling by Eldrbarry:

Lots of people think that St. Nicholas is just another name for Santa Claus. After all, Santa is also called Father Christmas, and Kris Kringle, and other names. Actually, Santa Claus is itself a mispronunciation of the Dutch SinterKlass which was their way of saying St. Nicholas.

But behind all these name is a boy who actually lived in what is now Western Turkey and what was then Lycia in the Fourth Century, about seventeen hundred years ago. His name was Nicholas. There are many legends about this boy and the man he became, and behind those legends is the story of St. Nicholas.

When Nicholas was a little boy, a plague struck Patara, the town where he lived and both his parents got sick and died. Nicholas went to live with his Uncle who was a monk in a monastery. His uncle the abbot, taught him all about God and Jesus from the Bible. Nicholas wanted to become a monk when he grew up.

Now Nicholasí parents were wealthy when they died and monks are supposed to be poor. So Nicholas resolved to give away all his money to help those who were needy, and especially other children in trouble. He determined to be sneaky, so they would not know from where the money came.

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 much much more than they were worth, then making an excuse, gave the rugs back to the manís wife. Nicholas helped lots of people, and he was sneaky in doing so.

There were three girls, who could not get married because their father had been careless and spent their dowries and was still in debt. (In those days, a girl had to have a big sum of money - a dowry - if she was to marry.) The only option for these girls was slavery or worse! Nicholas heard of this and came up with a plan.

Late at night, he tossed a stocking full of gold coins through the bedroom window of the oldest daughter. People were surprised when soon after this the girl married a good husband. She said she had a dowry "hid away in a sock". Soon after this, Nicholas again tossed a sock full of money through the window of the second daughter. She too soon also married.

But when Nicholas crept up to the house with a third sock full of money, for the third daughter. He found all the windows were shut. He did what boys sometimes do --- he climbed up on their roof, and dropped it down the chimney, landing in the girlís shoes, which were beside the hearth. When she too married, claiming her dowry was in her shoes, people were amazed and said to one another - "Itís some kind of miracle!"

Now Nicholas had helped a lot of people and was ready to become a monk in the monastery. But then he had a strange dream. Not just once, several times and always the same. In his dream, Jesus gave him a book of Gospels covered with Jewels, and the robes of a priest. When Nicholas told his uncle of these dreams, and his uncle told him that Jesus must want him to become a priest. Soon he did just that, and he was still a boy, in his teens. As a priest, Nicholas was zealous to tell people about Jesus, and always looking for ways to help people in need or children in trouble. People talked about the kind boy priest!

Nicholas lived in a time when the Roman Emperor ruled with force much of the world. Nicholas went on a trip to see the Bible Lands. He sailed on a ship to Egypt, famous for its monumental temples, and the Library and Lighthouse at Alexandria. But Egypt was in ruins, and the Romans had persecuted and killed many people. Those who were left were hungry and poor. He traveled to Palestine, to see the places where Jesus had walked, but Jerusalem was also in ruins, the temple torn down and burned, this too had been done by the Romans. Nicholas visited with Christians and churches along the way, and encouraged them to help the poor and needy. While there he had a dream that Jesus was placing a Bishopís hat on his head.

On the way home, the ship he was on was caught in a terrible storm. the ship was tossed and the rigging torn. Some of the sailors had been lost at sea, some had abandoned the ship, and those left were terribly afraid. The ship might soon flounder or crash on the rocks.

There were three sailors left on the ship, and 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 nearest port, a city called Myra - in Lycia, but a long ways from Nicholasí home. When they arrived very early in the morning, the three sailors told how their ship had been saved when young Nicholas the priest had prayed: "It was like a miracle!" they said. Nicholas hurried off to the church for morning prayers to give thanks.

Now in Myra, recently the Bishop who was very old had died. It was a time of persecution. The priests could not agree on who to elect as the new Bishop.

There were three priests at the church that morning, maybe more. They had been praying all night and each had had the same dream - that they were to make the first worshipper who came for morning prayers the new Bishop. Nicholas, a stranger in Myra, and still a youth, but a priest, was the first to arrive. How surprised he was when the priest told him he was to become the Bishop. At first he hesitated, but they insisted, telling of their dreams. Then he remembered his dream. Young Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra."Itís a miracle!" said the three priests.

Now Myra was an important city. Nicholas was a good bishop. He was known for his piety and zeal for Jesus, and when he taught the Gospel, people said it was like precious gems. He was equally concerned about the poor and needy and helping children and others in trouble. He set a constant example, often helping people in secret ways. Many pagan people were converted and baptized through his loving ministry.

But soon, Nicholas, now a young man was himself imprisoned. The new Roman Emperor Diocletian hated Christians, and was determined to hunt them all down and kill them or make them deny their faith. This was sometime between 303 and 311 AD. This was one of the greatest persecutions of the church, and many Christians were cruelly murdered. There were three jailers guarding him, maybe more. They tried and tried to convince Nicholas to deny his faith in Jesus. They tortured him. He was hungry and cold and wearing chains. But he taught them about Jesus. He was kind to them despite all their insults. 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. He had a dream that he would conquer through Christ, and he had become a Christian. He made Christianity the official religion. Nicholas and the other Christians were set free. Bishop Nicholas went back to his people in Myra. Many people were converted to believe in Jesus.

There were three innocent men in Myra, that were wrongfully accused and sentenced to death by the Govenor, who had been bribed. Nicholas confronted the Govenor so fiercely that the Govenor admitted their innocence and his own guilt. It is said that there were three imperial soldiers present. Later on, they too were falsely accused in Constantineís court. They prayed for help. Both Constantine and the Prefect Ablavius had dreams the same night of being confronted by the angry bishop. When they realized they had had the same dream - the three were freed. "It must be a miracle" everyone said.

He was much older now, his beard white, his face wrinkled. His eyes sparkled when he talked about Jesus, and he always had something for the poor and needy. He loved children, and they loved him too. Though he still often to be secretive in helping people, people still knew of many kind acts and deeds. But Nicholas could be firm too, especially when false teachers would try to influence his churches.

There were three hundred Bishops gathered at Nicaea in 325 AD The had gathered to discuss the teaching of a man named Arias. He questioned Jesusí full divinity, and his teaching had infected many. But not in Myra, thanks to Nicholasí constant vigilance. In the midst of the Councilís discussions, it is said that Nicholas had actually slapped Arius for his false teaching. It is said that some even wanted Nicholas removed as Bishop because of this, until Jesus in their dreams told them differently, and Nicholas was restored.

We do know for sure that Nicholas died peacefully, after a life of kindness and faithful service for the Lord Jesus Christ in 345 or 352 AD - and buried in his Cathedral and that his feast day - December 6th - gradually became part of the celebration of Christmas. Hundreds of churches have been named after him. St. Nicholas, as he has been called since his death is loved by Christians in many lands - for his kindness and good and giving spirit - whether Greek or Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant.

This is the real St. Nicholas - an orphaned boy who became a priest and then a bishop. Who gave away all his wealth to the poor and especially to children in trouble. Who stood firm for his Lord Jesus in the midst of terrible persecution, and opposed false teachers as well.

    Let your continual mercy, O Lord, enkindle in your church the never-failing gift of charity, that, following the example of your servant Nicholas of Myra, we may have grace to deal in generosity and love with children and with all who are poor and distressed, and to uphold the cause of the those who have no helper and are tossed in tempests of doubt or grief; for the sake of Him who gave His life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

The Man behind the Legends:

St. Nicholas is revered by many faiths and traditions and is honored and loved world wide. The man behind Santa Claus was a Christian Bishop in Myra, a seaside town in what is now Western Turkey in the early Fourth Century A.D. Upon this known fact have grown many legends. Legends are stories about a historical figure which often embellish and expand far beyond the actual facts, though they may contain some elements of truth. Bishop Nicholas is mentioned by Methodius (d. 311) and John Chrysostom (d. 407) in his Liturgy, and a Sixth Century abbot, Nicholas of Sion, is believed to have written his biography and about his miracles, many of which involved saving children from tragedy.

Perhaps no other saint has been as widely loved as Nicholas. He is honored by Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and even Reformed Protestantism. Justinian named a church for him in Constantinope in the sixth century and about 1000 A. D. he was revered in Germany by Otto 2 (whose wife was Greek Orthodox). When the Saracens took the city, the Italians moved his relics to Bari in Italy in 1087. He is considered the Patron Saint of Moscow as well as many other places. In the Middle Ages, 400 churches were named for him in England alone. His image was used on Byzantine seals and icons more than any other saint, and he was a favorite subject of medieval artist and liturgical plays.

Born at Patar in Lycia in Asia Minor, orphaned at a very early age, he was raised by his Uncle in a Monastery. His parents died of a plague, leaving him very wealthy - but he gave it all away secretly to the poor and the needy. This was done in creative ways. For example, he bought a carpet from a man at a ridiculously high price. Then he gave the carpet to the manís wife as a gift.

The best know tale of his generosity concerns three girls whose impoverished father had no money for their marriage dowries, and who faced slavery as a result. Nicholas tossed bags of gold coins through girlís windows at night. Some versions have him dropping the third bag of coins down the chimney. Each of the girls was able to marry as a result of these gifts from nowhere. Nicholas wanted to become a monk, but as a result of a dream where Jesus gave him a jeweled copy of the four gospels, he became a priest, tradition has it at the age of 17.

Nicholas may have made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. Perhaps on the journey home, there was a fierce storm during which he saved three sailors by appearing and stilling the storm.

The Bishop at Myra had recently died, and there was disagreement on the selection of a new bishop. During a time of fasting and prayer, came the revelation of an angel that they were to make a man named Nicholas, a stranger, who would be the first to arrive for morning prayers, the new Bishop. Young Nicholas was made the Bishop of Myra.

Nicholas was a good choice. He was known for his piety and zeal for the faith, as well as his concern for children, the needy and the poor. Some miracles were attributed to him and the nick-name the Wonder Worker as well. He would soon become known for his courage. He was imprisoned and tortured during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian and his Regent Maximan somewhere between 303 and 311 A.D., but Nicholas continued to teach even in chains, refusing to renounce Christ, despite imprisonment and torture.

When Constantine became Emperor, Christianity suddenly became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D. Nicholas was released and returned to his flock. One of the oldest accounts of Nicholas has him saving three innocent soldiers who had been condemned to death by appearing in the Emperorís dreams interceding in their behalf.

One miracle frequently attributed to St. Nicholas is the Children in the Brime Tubs. Supposably an evil innkeeper had murder three boys and hid their remains in tubs of salt. St. Nicholas was said to have restored them to life, and brought the innkeeper to repentance. It would seem that this story orginated through a misunderstanding of Icon pictures of Nicholas baptizing three figures in a large tub. Eastern Icons showed the principle figures as larger, and so the figures in the tub, being smaller were thought to be three boys. This miracle is frequently mentioned in the middle ages.

Soon after this, the Council of Nicaea met in 325 A.D. to deal with Arius and his false teachings about Christís Divinity. While the records do not show him as having attended, tradition suggests he was not only there, but had slapped Arius in the face for his heresy, was temporarily defrocked and then restored by miraculous revelation. If not there, at least, according to one account, Myra alone was untouched by the filth of this heresy due to the faithful teaching of its bishop, Nicholas.

Nicholas died on December 6th, in 342 A.D. That day has become his feast day. A European custom in the Middle ages was the election of a boy as Bishop on Nicholasí feast day (Dec. 6th) who would reign until Holy Innocentís day (Dec. 28th) when he would have to preach a sermon!

Another tradition of remembering Nicholas by giving anonymous gifts to children and the poor as gifts coming from him developed in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands - similar to the gifts given by of the Three Kings in Spain on Epiphany Eve (Jan. 6th). It is thought by some that this gift giving custom originally replaced a pagan yuletide celebration of Woden, coming on horseback with gifts.

With the Reformationís break from Roman Catholicism, "St. Nicholas" became "Pere Noel" (France) "Father Christmas" (England) "Christkindl" (German Lutherans), "Grandfather Frost" (under Russian Communism - he was pictured wearing blue) and "Sinterklaas" (Dutch) - the mispronunciation of the latter in America became "Santa Claus".

The fat jolly Santa with his red suit we know was the creation of an Illustration by Thomas Nash in 1864 and 1878, and Haddon Sundblomís illustrations for Cola-Cola from 1931 to 1964, both drawing from Clement Mooreís Poem "Twas the Night before Christmas" in the 1823.

Though obscured by Santa and Reindeer and much of the modern Christmas celebration, behind the legends of St. Nicholas was a kind and pious man, who loved and served the Lord Jesus Christ, and who loved and cared for those in need, especially children, a man whose example we ought to follow.

I told this story at a church children's Christmas party dressed up as St. Nicholas, with a long white gown; a red tunic with a green jewelled Bible (with an Orthodox cross) and three gold balls (with The Chi-Rho, Jerusalem and Latin crosses on them) sewn on as emblems, and with Jingle Bells on the hem; a white Cloak with red trim in the front; and a 12" Bishop's miter with a red cross and gold fish on the front - all home made. I also wore a Santa Wig and beard. After telling the story of St. Nicholas - gifts were passed out to the children.

Merry Christmas 1999 ---- Barry McWilliams (eldrbarry) Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church, Lake Stevens, Wa

Sources on St. Nicholas: See also the following Websites: Nicholas of Myra

Nicholas and Santa Claus

Nicholas and Sinterklaasje

Graphic representations of St. Nicholas

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