Tomorrow is the day set aside by the Church to commemorate the life of Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who died on December 6, 342. Nicholas was orphaned early in life and inherited great wealth from his parents. He used his wealth throughout his life to assist the poor and afflicted.
Nicholas became known for his compassion to children, great deeds of generosity, and concern for sailors and ships. Like many of the faithful, his life became surrounded by a number of fantastic stories of miracles and amazing feats but his most famous act of charity may well be true. It involved a nobleman of the city of Patara who suddenly became bankrupt. The man had three daughters whom he wished to give in marriage, but his bankruptcy meant that he had nothing for a dowry. Unable to support his daughters, he resolved to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas heard of the situation and decided to do what he could to prevent this.
He learned that the man slept with his window open and so, under the cover of night, he threw a bag of gold in the man’s open window. This act was repeated three times for each of the man’s daughters.
Nicholas served as bishop of Myra during the reign of Emperor Diocletian and, consequently, like many other bishops of the day, he suffered persecution and exile. One of the biographers of Nicholas, St. Methodius, records, “As he was the chief priest of the Christians of this town and preached the truths of faith with a holy liberty, the divine Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians. But when the great and religious Constantine, chosen by God assumed the imperial diadem of the Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with them the illustrious Nicholas, who when he was set at liberty returned to Myra.”
Not only did Nicholas attend the Council of Nicaea, but, according to legend, he became so infuriated with Arius’ folly that he gave him a slap in the face. Methodius credits the teaching of Nicholas for preserving Myra from “the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.”
Because the day set apart to commemorate his life is so close to Christmas, and because his three gifts to the poor man are somewhat analogous to the three gifts received by Christ from the Magi, St. Nicholas became closely associated with Christmas. And that is how he became associated with the most venerated saint in America. “Santa Claus” is simply a corruption of “Sanctus Nikolaus.”
Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the well-being of others, the care of widows and orphans, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.