I’m not going to keep you long today. I know that everyone has presents to unwrap, food to get fat on, and family to love and annoy in proper proportion. However, the modern American conception of Christmas is fairly muddled. No one knows whether its about the birth of some esoteric Christian deity, a German fairy who rides around with a herd of reindeer, raw merchantilism at its worst, getting time off work, pretty light, etc, etc, etc. We have a few Christmas traditions, but we don’t generally know where they came from or what they’re actually about. Many people I meet don’t seem quite sure whether Santa Claus is based on a German fairy king (as many modern Christmas cartoons depict), on an ancient Christian saint, or is a creation of Victorian England (surprisingly I hear this one fairly often… no idea where it came from).
However, I actually love the story of Saint Nicholas, so I’m going to give you a little simple insight. It is worth noting that the ancients almost universally describe early Christians as generous. In fact, R.E.O. White points out even the staunch enemies of Christianity such as Julian the Apostate (Emperor until 363 C.E.), Lucian of Samosta (a Greek Satarist who died around 180 C.E.), and Pliny the Younger (a Roman author and leader who died around 113 C.E.) all describe Christians by their extreme generosity. In fact, Lucian’s greatest critique of Christianity, in The Passing of Perenginus, is that their generosity makes them extremely easy to take advantage of, and this they must be considered among the most foolish of people. The story of Saint Nicholas illustrates these points quite well.
Saint Nicholas was a Greek who most likely lived circa 273 to 343 and spent much of his life in the city of Myra in Turkey. He was known as a good and generous man who often provided for those in need, and indeed two of the legends about him that are most likely to be true are those of his provision. According to Adam English (a Professor at Campbell University), there is one myth about the Greek Saint that is almost certainly true. According to the legend, Nicholas discovered that there was a man living near by who was very poor, and who had three daughters for whom he could provide no dowries. In this time period, the lack of a dowry generally meant that a young woman would not be getting married, and an unmarried maiden would most likely either be sold as a slave (to pay debts) or have to find work as a prostitute. Even if the woman avoided these fates, they would most likely be assumed to work as prostitutes and thus would be pariahs in the community. According to the legend, Saint Nicholas secretly provided three bags of gold coins, either by tossing them through the window or dropping them down the chimney (depending on the version you read), to provide a dowry for each daughter.
There are also numerous stories of Saint Nicholas providing aid to sailors. Sometimes this came in the form of monetary aid (such as when he purchased two years worth of wheat from a ship, but when the sailors reached their next port, they found the wheat back in their hold), and sometimes it is depicted as rescue from storms or from the depths of the sea. While at least some of these stories are likely to be true, it is unlikely that all of them are true. Unfortunately, English concludes that the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the three murdered boys dates to the late middle ages and thus is unlikely to have any truth to it.
So, I hope that you all thoroughly enjoy your Christmas day! I also hope that, if you had an confusion about who Saint Nicholas was, or why he mattered, then I hope that I’ve managed to clear it up for you.