Saint Nicholas, the Real Santa Claus

By Nora V. Clemente-Arnaldo

I believe that there are still many out there who do not know the real Santa Claus. There is more to him than just “jingle bells, snow, gifts, big be-moustached fat man in red attire”.

The real Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas, patron saint of Russia, Greece and Sicily. He is also invoked in prayers by brides, unmarried women, sailors, prisoners, bankers, pawn brokers, travelers, fishermen, and.

Nicholas’ Generosity

As per account of Victor Parachin in the Messenger of Saint Anthony, Nicholas was born to wealthy parents in the ancient southeastern Turkish town of Patara in the district of Lycia. But when he was 13 years old, a plague struck Patara and took the lives of his parents. He was sent to live with his uncle who was the bishop of Patara. Being sole heir to the vast wealth of his parents, Nicholas resolved to use his wealth to help others. There are many stories or accounts of him giving away food, clothing and money to the needy. Such acts of compassion were done as anonymously as possible.

There is a popular story of Nicholas’ generosity in saving women from slavery. A widowed father who had been a noble man had fallen from riches to poverty. He had three marriageable daughters. The sad thing is that although they had many suitors, they could not marry because he could not provide them with a dowry of money or property. Now, the eldest daughter had a plan: to sell herself as a slave to be able to raise money for her sisters’ dowries. Nicholas, upon hearing the news, acted quickly and secretly under cover of darkness. He tossed a bag of gold through an open window of the elder daughter’s room. When he realized that the amount was just good for one, he returned the following night and tossed a second bag of gold through the open window. On the third night, he found all the windows were secured so he climbed up the roof and dropped the bag down the chimney. Thus we see pictures of Santa Claus depicting him on chimneys with gifts.

When the three sisters were able to marry, people in their community began to wonder that the family could come up with the money. However, the girls explained that they were beneficiaries of a generous soul. Who could that be? Of course, it was not long before the people discovered it was Nicholas who provided the money.

Living with his bishop-uncle gave Nicholas opportunities to help him at baptisms, weddings and funerals. He also joined his bishop-uncle’s visits to the sick, bringing food and medicine. Nicholas later studied for the priesthood and was ordained when he was only nineteen. Once, he made a pilgrimage to our Lord Jesus’ place of birth and ministry. On his way home from Jerusalem, the ship he was traveling on got caught in a storm and they were tossed like a cork among the giant waves, amidst the loud clapping of thunder, lightning and heavy downpour. Terrified, the sailors prayed on their knees and Nicholas joined them. After two days and two nights of “hell,” the sun shone on the third day and the ship remained afloat. The sailors found themselves near the harbor at Myra, in the same area where Nicholas had grown up. The sailors attributed their miraculous safety to the prayers offered by Nicholas. Because of that incident Nicholas would become the patron of sailors.

The Bishop of Myra

We see God’s inscrutable design in one incident in Saint Nicholas’ life. The bishop of Myra died and the priests could not agree on a new bishop. After some deliberation, the priests’ consensus was that the first worshipper who came for the morning prayers would be chosen as their new bishop. That morning, Nicholas woke up very early and walked three miles to the cathedral to thank God for delivering their ship from the storm. As that morning’s first worshipper, Nicholas became a bishop “by default,” and his protests over the decision proved futile.

Nicholas, the new bishop of Myra, continued to work on behalf of the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed. On one occasion, three men in Myra were wrongfully accused of a crime and sentenced to death by the governor who had been bribed. Upon learning of this injustice Nicholas immediately confronted the governor. The governor admitted his guilt, the innocence of the three men was upheld, and they were released. For this courageous and grace-filled intervention, Nicholas came to be regarded as patron saint of prisoners.

It is written in the Book of Saints that Saint Nicholas suffered for the faith under Diocletian, and he was present at the Council of Nice as an opponent of Arianism.

After a lifetime of service, Nicholas died in Myra on 6 December 343. He became a legendary figure. In the 11th century, Constantinople and the city of Myra were under Islamic control. So, on 9 May 1087, the Italian Christian traders carried the remains of Nicholas to a safe place in Bari, Italy where they are venerated up to the present.

A magnificent shrine was built around Nicholas’ remains with Pope Urban II present at the enshrining. Devotion to Saint Nicholas increased all over Europe.

How Saint Nicholas got the Name “ Santa Claus”

According to Victor Parachin, when the Dutch colonists came to the New World, they brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas with them. The Dutch referred to Saint Nicholas as “Sinter Claus”! When they lost control of Amsterdam to the British in the 17th century, “Sinter Claus” was Anglicized to “Santa Claus”.

Nowadays, Santa Claus has become such a secular figure not so much associated with God. But we know now that the real Santa Claus was originally an orphaned boy who became a priest and bishop, and used his wealth to help people in need, especially the children. It is this real image of Santa Claus that we should take inspiration from, not only during Christmas but all throughout the year.



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