The Tradition of St. Nicholas

St. NicholasAmerican Minute with Bill Federer

Greek Orthodox tradition tells of Saint Nicholas being born around 280 AD, the only child of a wealthy, elderly couple who lived in Patara, Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).

When his parents died in a plague, Nicholas inherited their wealth.

Nicholas generously gave to the poor, but did it anonymously as he wanted the glory to go to God.

One notable incident was when a merchant in town had gone bankrupt.

The creditors threatened to take, not only the merchants’ house and property, but also his children.

The merchant had three daughters. He knew if they were taken it would probably mean a life of sex-trafficking and prostitution.

The merchant had an idea of quickly marrying his daughters off so the creditors could not take them.

Unfortunately, he did not have money for a dowry, which was needed in that area of the world for a legally recognized wedding.

Nicholas heard of the merchant’s dilemma and in the dark of night threw a bag of money in the window for the oldest daughter’s dowry.

Supposedly the bag of money landed in a shoe or a stocking that was drying by the fireplace.

It was the talk of the town when the first daughter got married.

Nicholas then threw a bag of money in the window for the second daughter and she was able to get married.

Upon throwing money in for the third daughter, the merchant ran outside and caught Nicholas.

Nicholas made him promise not to tell where the money came from, as he wanted the credit to go to God.

This was the origin of the tradition of secret gift-giving on the anniversary eve of Saint Nicholas’ death, which was DECEMBER 6, 343 AD.

The three gold balls outside a pawnbrokers shop represent the three bags of gold St. Nicholas used to rescue a family in their time of financial need.

St. Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visited the birthplace of Jesus.

Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, 1869, of visiting the Church of the Nativity:

“This spot where the very first ‘Merry Christmas!’ was uttered in all the world, and from whence the friend of my childhood, Santa Claus, departed on his first journey, to gladden and continue to gladden roaring firesides on wintry mornings in many a distant land forever and forever.”

St. Nicholas considered joining a secluded monastery, till the Lord impressed upon him “not to hide his light under a bushel.”

St. Nicholas returned to Asia Minor where he became the Bishop of Myra, a busy port city on the coast of Asia Minor.

Soon St. Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned during Emperor Diocletian’s brutal persecution of Christians. St. Nicholas would not deny his faith in Christ!

St. Nicholas was freed when Emperor Constantine ended Rome’s three century long persecution of Christians.

When the first major heresy–the Arian Heresy–began to split the Christian Church, Constantine ordered all the bishops to go to Nicea to settle it, which they did by writing the Nicene Creed.

The tradition is that St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea and was so upset at Arius for starting this heresy that he slapped him across the face. Evidently, Jolly Old St. Nick had a little temper!

St. Nicholas preached against sexual immorality and Diana worship at Ephesus. The Apostle Paul had also preached there according to the Book of Acts, chapter 19.

The Temple to Diana was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, having 127 huge pillars–and temple prostitutes. It was the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean world.

The people responded to St. Nicholas’ fiery preaching by tearing down the local temple to Diana.

St. Nicholas also stood up to corrupt government politicians.

One story was of a corrupt governor who was about to execute some innocent soldiers in order to cover up his misdeeds.

St. Nicholas broke through the crowd, grabbed the executioner’s sword, threw it down and then exposed the governor’s evil plot. The Governor, realizing that St. Nicholas had no way of knowing the details of his plot except by insight given by God, fell on his knees and begged Nicholas to pray for him.

Greek Orthodox tradition attributes many miraculous answers to St. Nicholas’ prayers.

Once a storm was so bad that fishermen and sailors were not able to get back to shore.

The people asked St. Nicholas to pray and the sea became calm enough for the fishermen and sailors to return safely to port.

This led to St. Nicholas being considered the patron saint of sailors.

St. Nicholas’ reputation grew so much that he became to Greek Orthodox Christians what St. Peter was to Roman Catholic Christians.

In the 5th century a church in Myra was named after St. Nicholas, being rebuilt by Emperor Justinian after an earthquake in 529.

In 988, Vladimir the Great of Russia converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and adopted Nicholas as the Patron Saint of Russia.

In the 11th century, Muslim terrorists–the Seljuks Turks–invaded Asia Minor, killing Christians, destroying churches and digging up the bones of Christian saints to desecrate them.

For protection, Christians shipped the remains of St. Nicholas to a church in the town of Bari in southern Italy in the year 1087.

Pope Urban II dedicated the church, naming it after St. Nicholas–the Basilica di San Nicola, thus introducing the Greek St. Nicholas to Western Europe.

So many Christians were fleeing the Muslim invasion of Eastern Europe that Pope Urban II went to the Council of Claremont in 1095 and called upon European leaders to send help.

Help was sent help–it was called the First Crusade.

With St. Nicholas’ remains in Italy, western Europeans quickly embraced the gift-giving traditions associated with St. Nicholas’ Day–DECEMBER 6.

By 1223, so much attention was being given to gift-giving during the Christmas season, that Saint Francis of Assisi wanted to refocus the attention back to the birth of Christ.

St. Francis created the first creche or nativity scene, with Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, surrounded by farm animals.

In 1517, Martin Luther began the Reformation, which effectively ended “saints days,” including the popular “St. Nicholas Day,” as these days were also considered a distraction from Christ.

Since Germans like the gift-giving, Martin Luther moved that to December 25th to emphasize that all gifts come from the Christ Child.

The German pronunciation of Christ Child was “Christkindl”, which over the centuries got pronounced Kris Kringle.

As Roman Catholics comment that St. Peter is at the Gates of Heaven, the Greek Orthodox focused on the prophecy of Jesus returning at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead, riding a white horse, accompanied by the saints, who will also be riding white horses.

Since Nicholas is a Saint, he most certainly will be one of those riding a white horse, the Greeks just have St. Nicholas coming back once a year for a little mini-judgement, to check up on the children to see if they are the right track.

Over the centuries, the story evolved.

In Norway they did not have horses so they have St. Nicholas riding a reindeer.

Saints came heaven, the New Jerusalem, the Celestial City–which turned into the North Pole.

The Lamb’s Book of Life and Book of Works turned into the Book of the Naughty and the Nice.

The angels turned into elves.

In England, during Henry VIII’s reign, Christmas became sort of a Mardi Gras–a time of partying and carousing. When Puritans took over England and outlawed Christmas as too worldly.

When the Puritans settled Massachusetts, they had a five shilling fine for anyone caught celebrating Christmas.

Puritan leader, Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), told his congregation, December 25, 1712:

“Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Saviour is honoured, by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadam? You cannot possibly think so!”

The Dutch loved Christmas and St. Nicholas traditions.

They embellished the story with St. Nicholas coming once a year to give present to good children, and having a Moorish costumed helper, Zwarte Piet, who would put naughty children in sacks and take them back to Spain to sell into Muslim slavery.

Eventually, Dutch immigrants brought their St. Nicholas traditions to New Amsterdam, which became New York in 1665.

Dutch pronounced Saint Nicholas as “Sinter Klass,” which became “Santa Claus.”

Washington Irving, author of Legend of Sleepy Hallow and Rip Van Winkle, wrote Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New York, 1809, in which he described St. Nicholas no longer wearing a Bishop’s outfit, but instead had him wearing a typical Dutch outfit of long-trunk hose, leather belt, boots and a stocking hat.

Clement Moore was an Episcopal priest and Hebrew professor at General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City.

His family land is now the New York neighborhood of Chelsea, where a Clement Clarke Moore Park is located at 10th Ave. and 22nd St.

In 1823, Clement Moore wrote a poem for his six children titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas”:

‘TWAS the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung
by the chimney with care,
In hopes that ST. NICHOLAS
soon would be there…”

“When, what to my wondering
eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh,
and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver,
so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment
it must be ST. NICK…”

“So up to the house-top
the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys,
and ST. NICHOLAS too…”

“As I drew in my head,
and was turning around,
Down the chimney ST. NICHOLAS
came with a bound…”

Clement Moore describe St. Nicholas as smaller:

“He was chubby and plump,
a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him,
in spite of myself…”

Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast drew St. Nicholas visiting Union troops.

Thomas Nast was famous for inventing the Republican elephant and Democrat mule for his political cartoons. He was the first artist to put a “North Pole” sign behind St. Nick as a subtle jab against the South during the Civil War.

In 1930, Coca Cola hired artist Haddon Sundblom, famous for his Quaker Oats man, to create a painting every year of “Jolly Old St. Nick” drinking Coke.

Though many additions have been added on, there really was a St. Nicholas who lived in the 4th century Asia Minor, who loved Jesus enough go into the ministry, be imprisoned for his faith by the Romans, stood for the doctrine of the Trinity, preached against sexually immoral pagan temples, and was very generous, giving to the poor in their time of need.

To find out much more get the fascinating book There Really is a Santa Claus-The History of Saint Nicholas & Christmas Holiday Traditions.


bill-federer-2Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.