by Curt Kovener
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of just about everything. He is the national saint of Russia and Greece and churches named after him number in the thousands- more than 400 in Great Britain alone. He is the patron saint of paupers, scholars, travelers, maidens and poor children. He is known as the friend and protector of all those in trouble.
Saint Nicholas, was an early church leader, born in the Middle East about 350 miles northwest of Bethlehem in the fourth century. He rose in the church to the level of Bishop and stories tell of his love for children and his kind acts to the down trodden.
Perhaps the most famous story of all tells how he helped three unfortunate young sisters who all had suitors but had no dowries because their father could not raise the money. As was the custom of the time, no dowry meant they could not marry.
Now the bishop Nicholas was a shy man and did not like to give money directly, so he thought of a way to give it anonymously. When the first daughter was ready to marry, the good bishop tossed a bag of gold into the house at night. Later, when the second daughter prepared to marry, she too received a mysterious bag of gold.
When the third daughter prepared to marry, the poor father was determined to find out who had been so generous. So he kept watch and saw the bishop drop another bag of gold into the house. As the story goes, Saint Nicholas climbed on the roof and dropped the bag of gold down the chimney where it landed in a stocking hung to dry, giving us a reason to hang up Christmas stockings today.
When the father saw what had happened, Nicholas asked him to keep the secret, but, of course, the news got out. From then on, whenever anyone received an unexpected gift, they thanked Nicholas.
Six hundred years later, the Russian Emperor Vladimir visited Constantinople and heard all the wonderful stories about Bishop Nicholas and decided to make him the patron saint of Russia. The stories even spread to the Laplands- you know, to the people who have reindeer pull their sleds.
During the Reformation all saints fell into disrepute in parts of Europe that took to the Protestant faith. Reformers did everything they could to erase the popular Saint Nicholas. (Doesn’t that sound contemporarily familiar?) But despite their efforts, they were never completely successful.
Even though he was removed from the church, Saint Nicholas continued his popularity in the streets and homes. In Germany he put nuts and apples in the shoes of Protestant children under the guise of the Christchild. In 1545 Martin Luther’s children received gifts from the “Holychild,” that pre-Reformation were received from Saint Nicholas. The Christchild and Saint Nicholas were described as wanderers, traveling by foot or by horeback or by sled depending on the region, examining the deeds of mankind, children especially, for good behavior and rewarding them with the apples, nuts, and sweets.
Parents quickly began using these “visits” to encourage good behavior from their offspring. Over the decades each country and culture added their own twist to the story of Saint. Nicholas.
Historians believe that over the years the stories of Saint Nicholas as told through varying European, Dutch, German accented pronunciations, his named slowly changed by who said, who heard, and who repeated. Saint Nicholas in one tongue became Sannikolus then Sani Klaus and eventually evolved into Santa Claus.
So, now when pastors and other pulpiteers, insist that the kindly, gift-giving Santa Claus is secular commercialization of Christmas, you know the true history and that he really began as an early church leader.