By NANCY SCHWERIN
Little is known about the Catholic bishop St. Nicholas, but his giving spirit lives on in the tale of Santa Claus. By learning from the symbol of St. Nicholas, children, and adults, can discover the joy in helping their neighbor and the joy of being blessed with God’s goodness.
Once upon a time in the fourth century, a boy was born to wealthy merchants in Patara, Lycia, a province of Asia Minor (Turkey). Its capital, Myra, was an episcopal see, of which the boy Nicholas was destined to be bishop.
His parents taught him well about giving generously and helping the poor. As a child he gave bags of gold to every needy soul he came across and is said to have fasted every Wednesday and Friday.
One legend describes a father who lost all his family’s money. He decided he would have to sell one daughter into slavery to pay for the two others to marry. When Nicholas found out about this, he left a bag of gold for the father. As years passed he left two more bags for the other daughters to marry. The young man’s kindness was never-ending and his wisdom reached far beyond his age.
In later years, Nicholas was acclaimed bishop by the people of Myra. The story goes that the people were praying in church when the Lord told them that whoever was the next to enter the church should be their bishop. Nicholas was first to walk through the church doors.
Nicholas was hesitant about being named a bishop, because he preferred his good deeds to be in secret. He was told that as bishop he should proclaim his good works in the name of the Lord.
Most accounts of his life say that Nicholas was imprisoned during the persecutions when he was upheld by the people as bishop. When Constantine came to reign, the prisoners were freed.
Some accounts of St. Nicholas place him at the Council of Nicaea in 325 where he denounced Arianism, a belief that Jesus was not of God but was a being exalted above all others. Other accounts simply say he was active in keeping the Arian mindset out of Myra.
When Nicholas died, he was buried in Myra. When the Saracens took over Myra, the relics of St. Nicholas were brought to Bari, Italy.
The beloved saint, in life and death, saved countless lives and souls through his actions and intercession.
St. Nick is best known as the patron saint of sailors and children. According to legend he appeared to sailors caught in torrential storms and brought them safely back to port. During his lifetime, Nicholas continually gave gifts to children. He spread his kindness and generosity far and wide. One account connects the two, in that, Nicholas sought to bring sailors and their ships with supplies, food and other goods, to needy men, women and children around the world.
In the 17th century, Dutch settlers in New York introduced Sinter Klass and their traditions of the saint to America. From Sinter Klass, Santa Claus was later derived.
The bells and whistles of the Christmas season mainly came about from songs, writings and commercial traditions over the years.
In 1809, Washington Irving first wrote about the saint arriving on horseback on the Eve of St. Nicholas.
In 1823, a poem by Clement Clarke Moore, A Visit From Saint Nicholas, brought St. Nick into his Americanized form. The popular story, which is now known as The Night Before Christmas, introduced details including the names of the reindeer and described St. Nicholas as an elf who used the chimney as an exit.
Thomas Nast furthered the Santa image, including the jolly man’s round stomach, his workshop at the North Pole and his list of the naughty and the nice, in Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s.
Santa became life-sized in a series of Coca-Cola advertisements introduced in 1931; the elves remained in the toy workshop. Rudolph, the red-nosed ninth reindeer, was invented in 1939 in advertising for the Montgomery Ward Company.
While many adult Americans view Santa as a sign of the spirit of giving for the holiday season, the sights and sounds of Christmas also may leave a sour taste for other’s. Commercialism is seen as overshadowing the real meaning of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ as our savior.
But as other symbols do, Santa Claus and all his fanfare born out of the generosity of a young boy named Nicholas is a seasonal reminder of giving thanks for our blessings and of offering ourselves to help others.
This article was compiled from several sources: “Santa Claus,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved; Catholic Online Saints © 1997-2000 All rights reserved; and Passionist Publications of the Passionist Missionaries.