Do you believe in Santa Klaus? I do. His actual name was Nicholas. He is also known at St. Nicholas (or St. Nick), or Nicholas of Myra. The Dutch settlers to America called him "Santer Klause." It was Nicholas’ real life that gave rise to the legends of Santa Klaus.
Who was Nicholas? He was born sometime in the late 200s. While still a young man, he was elected to be the Bishop of the church in the town of Myra, a Greek-speaking port city which today is on the coast of Turkey. Imprisoned with other church leaders by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was freed by Emperor Constantine.
Nicholas is on some records as attending the Council of Nicaea in 325, where reports have him speaking out strongly and forcefully for what would become the majority opinion. So next time you pick up your church hymnal look up the Nicaea Creed, and just think, Santa Klaus may very well have helped to write it.
After a brief illness, Nicholas died at his home in Myra on Dec. 6, sometime between 341 and 352. He was warmly remembered for his love of children, his generosity, and his compassion for the sufferings of sailors.
It was after his death that Nicholas became legendary. Evidently, the city of Myra had for years a mysterious benefactor. Someone was doing good deeds in secret. Nicholas’ death ended the decades old mystery — he had been the secret giver. Here were some of the stories that came out.
Years earlier a merchant in Myra had lost all of his goods in a shipwreck. He had three daughters to care for and was desperate. Someone had come to his house at night and quietly opened a window, and dropped a bag of gold coins into room. The bag broke open when it hit the floor and the coins were scattered, some even landing into one of the girls stockings left by the fire to dry. It had been Nicholas.
Another time someone had hired carpenters to make toys for the poorest children in town and then to give them away anonymously. This too was Nicholas.
And stories of his prayers were told. One time Nicholas was returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when their ship was hit by a terrible storm. A gust of wind blew down one of the masks, crushing a sailor below. It looked as if the ship would sink. At that point, Nicholas lifted up his hands and prayed, and the wind calmed, and the storm passed. He then went over to the sailor, laid his hands on him and prayed for him, and he recovered.
While the church never officially sainted Nicholas, stories about him spread and he became unofficially "St. Nicholas." In fact, according to The Christian History Institute, Nicholas became so popular that over 2,000 churches in Europe are named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England. Nicholas became the unofficial patron saint of children and of people who work on the sea.
Strangely, for such a popular person, few of us have heard of St. Nicholas. For this I think we can thank Martin Luther. In the Protestant Reformation, Protestants not only distanced themselves from Catholic hierarchy, they also distanced themselves from Catholic heroes, or saints. It is too bad, because Christianity did not begin at the Reformation in 1517, and we all need heroes.
Nicholas is traditionally remembered on the date of his death, the sixth of December, which is tomorrow. In memory of Nicolas — or Santa Klaus — do something nice for someone else tomorrow, and do it anonymously.