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A Giver of Gifts

by Fr. William Saunders

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  • Descriptive Title:
    St. Nicholas - A Giver of Gifts
    Description:
    In his weekly column in the Arlington Catholic Herald, Fr. William Saunders writes about the life of St. Nicholas, presenting the historical facts as well as some of the stories that have been handed on about this great saint.
  • Larger Work:
    The Arlington Catholic Herald
  • Publisher & Date:
    Diocese of Arlington, December 3, 2008

St. Nicholas is one of our most popular saints — the patron saint of Russia (along with St. Andrew), Greece, Sicily and Lorraine, France. Some hold that more than 2,000 churches are named in his honor. Yet, little historical evidence exists about this popular saint.

Tradition holds that he was born in Patara in Lycia, a province in Asia Minor, to a rather wealthy Christian family, and benefitted from a solid Christian upbringing. Some say that at age five he began to study the teachings of the Church. He always strived to practice virtue and piety.

His parents died when he was young and left him a substantial inheritance, which he used for many good works. One popular story tells of a widower who had three daughters. He was going to sell them into prostitution since he could not afford to provide the necessary dowries for their marriages.

St. Nicholas heard of the plight of the daughters and decided to help. In the dark of the night, he went to their home and tossed a bag of gold through an open window, thereby supplying the dowry money for the oldest daughter. The next two nights, he did the same. His generosity spared the girls from a sad fate. For this reason, he is the patron saint of pawnbrokers and brides.

His uncle, also named Nicholas, was bishop of Myra in present day Turkey, and ordained his nephew to the priesthood. St. Nicholas then distributed all of his wealth to the poor and entered the monastery, where he eventually became abbot. St. Nicholas' reputation as a holy man spread. Upon the death of his uncle, St. Nicholas was chosen to succeed him as bishop. St. Nicholas suffered imprisonment and torture for the Faith during the persecution waged by Emperor Diocletian around the year 300. After the legalization of Christianity, Emperor Constantine released him. Later, he attended the Council of Nicea in 325 and joined in the condemnation of the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. He died between 345-52 on Dec. 6, and was buried at his cathedral.

Helper of those in need

Various stories have been handed on about this zealous and holy bishop. Once he intervened to spare three innocent men sentenced to death by the corrupt governor Eustathius, whom St. Nicholas confronted and moved to do penance.

Another story is that sailors, caught in a ferocious storm, invoked his aid through prayer, and he miraculously appeared to them (although he was still on land) and helped them bail out their ship; hence, he is a patron saint of sailors. A final story relates how an evil butcher killed three boys and hid their bodies in a brine tub; St. Nicholas heard of this, confronted the butcher and raised the boys back to life.

St. Nicholas has been continually venerated as a great saint. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian I built a church in honor of St. Nicholas at Constantinople, and St. John Chrysostom included his name in the liturgy. In the 10th century, an anonymous Greek author wrote, "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 isles, in the furthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. All Christians, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, reverence the memory and call upon his protection."

After the fanatical Seljuk Muslims invaded Asia Minor and viciously persecuted Christianity, St. Nicholas’ body was rescued from desecration by Italian merchants in 1087 and was entombed in a new church in Bari, Italy. Pope Urban II blessed the new tomb with great ceremony. From that time, devotion to St. Nicholas increased throughout the West. More than 400 churches in England were dedicated to him. For a time during the Middle Ages, his tomb was the most visited in all of Europe. Interestingly, because the aroma of myrrh seemed to waft around his tomb, he was soon recognized as the patron saint of perfumers.

Christmas symbol

Traditionally, St. Nicholas has been associated with the giving of gifts at Christmas due to the story about the widower and his three daughters. In Holland, where the custom seems to originate, St. Nicholas (Sint Klaas or Santa Claus) would come on the eve of his feast day and bring presents to the good children. Another variant of this tradition is that St. Nicholas fills the shoes of the children with goodies, which they find the next morning.

Another tradition among the Germans is that on the first Sunday of Advent, the children write a letter to the Christ Child in which they tell their secret wishes and the efforts they will make to prepare for Christmas. Then on St. Nicholas Day, he (or a reasonable facsimile) comes to ask each child about his progress, particularly about praying and being obedient to his parents.

The good children receive apples, nuts and other goodies, while the bad ones are chastised by Krampus, the small black fellow who accompanies St. Nicholas. Krampus admonishes them, “You must change your lives, or else I will take you with me.” The children, accordingly repentant, promise to do better and then receive their goodies from St. Nicholas. For this reason, many Dutch and German Christmas ornaments depict St. Nicholas dressed as a bishop with a miter and crosier accompanied by Krampus or a helpful angel who has the list of good children.

Sadly, the devotion to St. Nicholas was distorted by the Dutch Protestants who wanted to erase his "Catholic trappings." They stripped him of his bishop's regalia and made him a more Nordic looking Father Christmas with a red suit. They also interwove some of the legends surrounding the god Thor who drove a chariot and who would come down the chimney to visit a home. In the 19th century, American authors also helped change the “bishop’s image” of St. Nicholas.

In 1820, Washington Irving wrote a story of Santa Claus flying in a wagon to deliver presents to children. Three years later, Clement Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” known better as “The Night Before Christmas,” describing Santa Claus as a “jolly old elf” with a round belly, cheeks likes roses, and a nose like a cherry. In 1882, Thomas Nast drew a picture of Santa Claus based on Moore’s description and even added that the North Pole was his home. Finally, Haddom Sundblom, an advertising artist for Coca-Cola, transformed Santa Claus into the red-suited, rotund and Coke-drinking jolly character we easily picture in our minds today.

Real meaning of the season

Nevertheless, St. Nicholas reminds us that the greatest gift we celebrate each Christmas is the gift of our Savior Himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God who became also true man. He came as the way, the truth and the life. Through His cross and resurrection, He forgave our sins and gave us the promise of everlasting life. What a great gift. During Advent, each of us should seriously prepare for the coming of Our Savior, especially through prayer, examination of conscience and sacramental confession.

Secondly, St. Nicholas teaches us the importance of generously giving, especially to those in need. As we continue our Advent celebration, we must not miss the opportunity to share our faith with those who either have no faith or whose faith has grown cold. We must not miss the opportunity to share, even to sacrifice, to alleviate the burdens of our fellow men. St. Nicholas teaches us the true meaning of Christmas.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls.

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