December 6th is the Feast Day of the Saint most closely connected to Christmas- St. Nicholas. Most folks know of St. Nicholas only through the Santa Clause images. But of course, the historical St. Nicholas is a fabulous personality, and one of my favourite Saints.
Nicholas was born in Patara, in Asia Minor (around 270-276), to wealthy Christian parents, who passed away, leaving the young Nicholas a large inheritance. He was raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, and spent time in a monestary, and became a priest, and eventually was selected as Bishop of Myra. Nicholas became widely reputed for his demonstrations of charity and piety, suffering imprisonment during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian (he was released after the rise of Constantine, who made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire). He was also an adamant defender of doctrine, and opposer of Arius. During the council of Nicea in 325 which officially condemned Arius’ Christology, Nicholas is said to have gotten a little hot under the collar, and slapped Arius, resulting in Nicholas’ second stint in prison. One legend has Nicholas being released following a miraculous vision to Nicholas and others, and he was restored to his Episcopate.
Because of generousity, particularly to children, he became synonymous with Christmas gift giving and has become patron saint of children. Oddly enough though he is also Patron Saint and protector of prostitutes, which stems from a story in which a man in Myra was so desperate financially and unable to provide for his daughters that he was about to resort to placing his daughters in the sex trade, but Nicholas attempted to anonymously leave bags of money for the man the dowry on his daughters, but his generosity was found out. Because the money was used in a dowry, Nicholas became Patron Saint to unmarried women.
Nicholas is a wonderful example of a life lived authentically in Christian charity and devotion. Whereas many of us lean either to charity and social mission or personal piety and devotion, Nicholas managed both succesfully, caring for the needy, showing hospitality to travellers and merchants (Myra is a port city, and now Nicholas is also patron saint of sailors) but also observing a pious and devout life, apparently only receiving food twice a week, fasting the rest of the time, and praying unceasingly.
As the years went on, the Nicholas legend got spun in various ways until he was an overweight old man who lives at the North Pole with elves and has a team of flying reindeer who help him deliver toys to children all over the world. But the core historical character is a phenomenal one, worthy of reflection and emulation.
In Myra you proved yourself to be a priest,
a servant of divine things, O Saint,
for you fulfilled the Gospel of Christ, O holy one.
You gave up your life for your people
and saved the innocent from death.
You have been sanctified
for you were a great guide towards the things of God.
(Kontakion of St. Nicholas, Antiochan Orthodox)