Not many people know that I am named after St. Nicholas. This is what my mother used to tell me come Christmas, anyway, but in the past several years I’ve not had much occasion to think about it.
In this time of contemplation (which I covered in a previous post) it randomly popped in to my mind, and I took it upon myself to find out more about my namesake.
Since I was raised a protestant christian, I never really knew the stories of any of the the saints. What I did know is that St. Nicholas (Ol’ Saint Nick to most of you) was the historical basis for Santa Claus. And oh boy how much did I know about Santa Claus. There’s so many old stories and traditions and Coke ads to remember. I remember sitting on some strangers lap as a child, and my parents not thinking about it because he was wearing a red suit and a beard. If I close my eyes I can see Santa riding around on firetrucks through my town, and poking his jolly red ass in to Thanksgiving by way of the Macy’s Day parade. Oh the marketing! Oh the sparkly, white, buy-a-brand-new-expensive-piece-of-plastic joy of it all!
So after recovering from my commercialism induced seizure, I decided to dig a bit deeper. Here’s what I now know about St. Nicholas, from a purely historic perspective:
St. Nicholas was born in the third century AD, in the village of Patara, in what is now Turkey. He lost his parents to an epidemic when young. He was persecuted, exiled, and imprisoned under the Roman Emperor Diocletian for being a Christian. He was made Bishop of Myra. He attended the Council of Nicaea. He died and was buried in Myra.
So that was the man in all his facts. So what about the legend?
Well, it’s said that he used the whole of the inheritance he received at the passing of his wealthy parents to assist the needy and sick. He is rumored to have prayed for the resurrection of children that had been murdered. There’s a story that he rescued, after his own death (as a spirit then I guess), a young boy who was taken as a slave, and return him to his parents. He is rumored to have anonymously provided the dowries for three daughter of a poor man, so they could marry a good man.
(This is just a quick summation, and I could spend time recounting his legends in a more engaging way, but I won’t because the St. Nicholas Center has already done a great job of that.)
St. Nicholas, clearly, was a giver. He was a truly generous soul. Today he is revered at the Patron Saint of Children, for what that’s worth (though he’s regarded fondly by others for other reasons too). He was also, clearly, devout and an important man in the early church.
What, though, does this mean for us today? Well, I don’t really know what it means for you. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s just a nice story. Maybe, if you have faith in Christ, it’s a noble example of how to live a devout life.
For me, at the moment, I think it reminds me that things change with time, and not always for the better. Santa Claus is fine and dandy, but he’s nothing more than a commercial entity to me these days. There are certainly still messages of generosity and caring that are so often associated with him, but I don’t really think they belong there. They belong to a man who lived thousands of years ago in the middle east (no, not Jesus this time… though some would argue otherwise I’m sure). Santa is an adaptation; a derivative work of fiction based on a real man who did apparently great things (even if you discount the miraculous ones).
So this year, I’m going to try to remember my past and always try to get to the bottom of things. Above all, though, I think I owe it to St. Nicholas to be a kinder, wiser, and more generous person. I did steal his name after all.
* The image of St. Nicholas above is attributed to The InstaPLANET CulturalUniverse at en.wikipedia, and was used under a Creative Commons Attribution and ShareAlike 2.5 license (CC-BY-SA-2.5). The image was found on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas.