Since childhood, I have always had a deep affection for Christmas and for the holiday season. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that much of that had to do with the excitement from all the lights, decorations, the scent of a fir tree in our home, and of course, the presents to be opened under the Christmas tree! Still, from as far back as I can remember, one of my favorite parts of the holiday was the Christmas Eve candlelight service at our church. It was like a “pause” button during the holiday extravaganza – a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas… in fact, the ONLY reason for Christmas! While the world celebrates good tidings, cheery fireplaces, and an overweight Norwegian in a red suite with wind-chapped cheeks (Santa Claus) giving gifts to all the good children of the world, Christians are reminded of their Savior – the birth of a child whose life was determined to be put to death by God Himself for the salvation of sinners. What a wonderful story, and what cause for joyous celebration!
As I grew older, my love for Christmas only grew out of the cultivation of this truth. In fact, call me weird, but I always keep some small Christmas decoration out to remind me of our Savior’s birth. At work, it’s a cheap LED Christmas tree that plugs into my laptop. At home, it’s a little pickup truck decorated in holly, candy-canes, and bows. And I listen to Christmas music year ’round! Not exclusively, but regularly enough that one of my friends was once shocked to borrow my pickup truck in July to discover sleigh bells jingling when he turned the ignition. Some might call it vanity, but I just like to think that the celebration of God-incarnate coming to earth is too great an event to be celebrated during a short, three week window during the year… especially considering the fast pace of the season as we compete with heavy traffic, commercialism, and finding the best prices for gifts on Amazon. And then, alas, there’s the man that represents all that worldly congestion. Santa Claus – a Rockeffeller type gluttonous man in a red suite with magic reindeer, delivering presents to children overly hyped up on cookies anxiously waiting to hear reindeer hoofs on the roof after they were supposed to be asleep. Then, finally, there’s the year when they come to the realization that Santa… isn’t real. They are devastated.
I am thankful that my parents spared me of that agony. We were brought up always knowing that Santa was a made-up story and was comparable to Frosty the Snowman or Jack Frost. In other words, they told us the truth about Santa… that is, the commercialized version of Santa. And somewhere… I always heard a legend about some sort of man behind the myth – the real St. Nick. I didn’t really pay much attention though until recently when I discovered the story of the REAL St. Nick. He was a tough pastor passionately dedicated to the true Gospel, but discovering him was no easy task!
It began with a brief mention of him in our Historical Theology class – Nicholas of Myra, the pastor who struck the heretic Arius in the face at the Nicene Council in 325 AD. That sparked my interest, and I thought, “Wow! That sounds like the ‘jolly ol’ St. Nick’ I wanna know!”
I was soon discouraged. Of all the resources in our library, there was not a single book about him. I searched journal articles… nothing. So, I went for the scholastic approach and checked Wikipedia, scrolled down to the bibliography and bought every book that seemed to be moderately scholastic! Then I went back to our library, and checked out a dozen books or so on the life of the church in the East during the third and fourth centuries, the time that Nicholas lived.
So, if you would like to know the story about the real Santa Claus, the life of Nicholas of Myra, here are some highlights from what I found. Yes… this blog is about twice as long as a it should be, but I hope you stay interested!
The Early Life and Childhood
Nicholas of Myra was born in 260 AD during a time of significant political and religious instability. He was born in the port city of Patara (now called Dembre) on the Mediterranean sea in Turkey – then part of the Roman Empire. Rome was weakening, and as can be seen from the adjacent map, it was subject to frequent invasions, especially from Gothic invaders coming down from the Black Sea. In fact, even the great city of Ephesus, only about 200 miles NE of Patara, was sacked at about the same time Nicholas was born. Fear from these invasions was common, but things were even less stable for Christians at the time.
Just three years before Nicholas’ birth, the emperor Valerian ordered the death of all Christians without consideration for age or gender. Christians who suffered under his rule were innumerable, and the methods of death were grotesquely creative. In fact, no doubt as Nicholas grew up, he would have learned about four famous martyrs from his own town, Crescentum, Dioscorides, Themistocles, and Leo. Fortunately, Valerian got what was coming to him. He was captured and used as a foot-stool before being flayed alive and rubbed with salt by the Persians. After his death, Christians would experience relative peace when Nicholas was born. He was fortunate to be born in a Christian home, and a wealthy one that could afford him an education.
Sadly though, Nicholas’ parents died while he was still young (probably from a great plague that swept through Lycia between 251-270AD). He was orphaned, and was the sole heir of his parents’ wealth. Nicholas turned to the Lord whom his parents served and began to serve Him fervently. As he grew older, he modeled how a Christian could use his wealth in an honorable to God as he blessed others. He especially had a well-known fondness for children, especially orphans, and his generosity became legendary. You can see where the legend of “Nicholas the gift-giver” came from!
And what of the stockings by the fire and coming down the chimney during the night? A little oral tradition…
Nicholas heard of a man in his town who had recently lost all his wealth. He became so poor that he could no longer afford to feed his family. He was in a desperate situation – the man had three daughters, but they couldn’t get married because the law required a dowry. As far as the father was concerned, he had no choice but to either sell his daughters into slavery or turn them over to prostitution. When Nicholas heard of it, he went out into the night and secretly threw a small money bag of gold coins through an open window. The father used the money to marry his oldest daughter. Nicholas repeated the act a second time to the family’s surprise. After that, they were suspicious he would do it again for the final daughter, but the father was determined the find out who the giver was. When Nicholas arrived once more to give the family money, he found the windows locked, so he climbed to the roof where he dropped the money down the chimney where it was said to fall into a stocking hanging by the fire to dry. Alas! A legend was born! The father ran out into the street and caught Nicholas, who made him swear to tell no one (obviously the father wasn’t good to his word). The story has been told, retold, and exaggerated ever since… obviously.
Regardless, even from his youth, Nicholas’ transformed life as a believer was manifest to his community, and people were added to the faith as they observed his character and teaching:
“Justice and greater justice came forth from Nicholas: from the root of faith and the fear of God his life’s work in the world flourished.”
– Michael the Archimandrite, 710 AD
Nicholas’ generosity and kindness transcended his home town of Patara, but spread throughout all the region of Lycia, and though not yet a pastor, he devoted himself as a lay-person to worship and ministry.
Life in Ministry
In 295, news reached Patara that the pastor of Myra passed away, so Nicholas traveled to the nearby city to minister to the Christians there. To his surprise, he was asked to take the previous pastor’s position, which he hesitantly accepted. To be a pastor at the time was no easy task. Even though 295 was a year of relative peace throughout the Roman Empire, the most violent persecution against Christians in the history of the world was just around the corner – under the emperor Diocletian. For the moment, however, Nicholas’ new flock would enjoy his ministry, and it was said of him that “when he taught the Gospel, people said listening to him was like receiving precious gems.”1
In Diocletian’s early years as emperor, he tolerated Christians even though they annoyed him. However, their refusal to pay homage to the Emperor continually agitated him. Eventually (to make an already long story short), Diocletian had enough of them in the year 302, and he unleashed horrific terror never to be experienced again by the church to date. By 303, the worst persecution by the Roman Empire was in full swing, and Diocletian issued four edicts:
- All church buildings were to be destroyed, all Bibles burnt, and all Christian worship forbidden.
- All clergy were to be arrested and imprisoned.
- All clergy were to offer sacrifices to the gods or be tortured.
- All citizens throughout the Empire were to sacrifice to the gods and be executed if they refuse.
There was consolation for the laity. At least the majority of them were put to death, although gruesomely. However, Diocletian knew that the most sure way to end Christianity was if the leaders rejected the faith. Therefore, the pastors experienced the worst of the tortures during their every waking moment. Many of them only experienced comfort after going unconscious from their pain.
“All the pains which iron and steel, fire and sword, rack and cross, wild beasts and beastly men could inflict, were employed to gain the useless end. Eusebius was a a witness of this persecution… and saw, with his own eyes, as he tells us, the houses of prayer razed to the ground, the Holy Scriptures committed to the flames on the market places, the pastors hunted, tortured, and torn to pieces in the amphitheater. Even the wild beasts, he says, not without rhetorical exaggeration, at last refused to attack the Christians, as if they had assumed the part of men in place of the heathen Romans; the bloody swords became dull and shattered; the executioners grew weary, and had to relieve each other; but the Christians sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving, even to their latest breath.”2
Nicholas himself was spared death, though he endured significant torture for years to come. It wouldn’t be until the year 313 that Nicholas would finally be released after the East was conquered by Constantine the Great. In fact, in the year 325, Constantine assembled all the bishops of Rome to address a new heresy. Nicholas was there, but according to the fourteenth century historian, Nicephorus Kallistos Xanthaopoulos, many of the pastors at the council “still showed the wounds and scars in their flesh, and especially among the Bishops, such as Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, Paphnutius, and others.” The most common practice in the torture of bishops, which Nicholas was said to endure, was the putting out of the right eye and cutting off of the sinew of the left ankle.3 What’s really interesting though, is a certain event that transpired at the council.
Around the year 318, a new controversy developed in Alexandria called “Arianism.” Arius was slightly older than Nicholas and was a popular, energetic, and winsome preacher – of heresy. Very similar to today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, Arius taught that Christ could not be fully God, since Scripture clearly identified the Father as God and there is only one God. Therefore, “there was a time when the Son was not,” and Jesus was a being lesser than God, though higher than angels. Basically, Arius had a lot of friends in high places and church leaders all over the East got caught up in the dispute. Several prominent pastors who were close friends of Arius joined his position, leading to even more confusion and more bishops joining the side of Arius. However, very few actually understood his doctrine. When Constantine assembled all the bishops to address Arianism at the Council of Nicaea in 325, many of the bishops were shocked when they heard the true nature of the heresy.
It is extremely likely that Nicholas knew the controversy well. The mere fact that Nicholas was willing to make the 400 mile trip from Myra to Nicaea at the age of 65 shows that he understood how important the issue was! The Arian doctrine made Christ out to be a sort of demigod, who was greater than angels but less than God Himself. Nicholas knew what that meant. A Christ who was not God could not provide salvation – to anyone, since the standard of righteousness that God demands for salvation is that of His own. Therefore, the righteousness imputed to the Christian through Christ’s death had to be the perfect righteousness of God Himself. He had to have perfect holiness to impute perfect holiness to those for whom He died. Anything less could not result in salvation.
Nicholas could not tolerate such heresies. He was zealous for the Truth and the Christ of Scripture that he was tortured over ten years for! When it finally came time for Arius to declare his position at the Council, his testimony making the true nature of his heresy known, Nicholas was aghast by the blasphemy. So, in an agitated fury, Nicholas walked up to Arius and slapped him in the face! It’s almost humorous the way the Athenian monk Damaskinos describes the scene:
“The Emperor was sitting on his throne, flanked by 159 bishops to his left and 159 bishops to his right. Arius was presenting his views with great vigor and detail. As Saint Nicholas observed the scene, the bishops listened to Arius in complete silence and without interrupting this discourse. Outraged, and prompted by his saintly vigor, he left his seat and walked up to Arius, faced him squarely and slapped his face.”
No doubt this was the physical expression of what many of the other pastors felt, but such a thing couldn’t be tolerated so Nicholas was stripped of his garments and thrown in prison for the rest of the conference. After it was over through, he was restored to his position and returned to Myra where he spent his remaining years serving the church and sharing his faith until his death on December 6, between the years of 333 and 335.
If you ask me, that is a remarkable testimony of a faithful pastor! He lived an extremely difficult life, but Nicholas proved himself to be faithful and dedicated to the Lord, never blaming God for his circumstances! He never contributed any great theologies or sermons such as Augustine, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, or Chrysostom. If he did, it was destroyed by the Muslim invasions and the Crusades that would occur over the next several hundred years. Even more, he wasn’t the pastor of one of the cities of major influence, like Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, or Carthage. Regardless, Christians need to know that the real “St. Nick” was a humble pastor of Myra, who loved Christ and wholeheartedly put his faith in Him. He endured the most severe time of persecution in history for His Lord, and zealously protected the true Gospel from heresy.
He is a far cry from the Coca-Cola version of Santa Claus invented in 1931, as part of a campaign to boost winter sales. I can enjoy the story of the real Nicholas, and rejoice in the fact that he was a pastor who loved the Scriptures, and was zealous for the Truth. He would have been able to affirm the protestant distinctives of the Protestant Reformation, Sola Scripture (by Scripture alone), Sola Fide (by faith alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), Solus Christus (through Christ alone), Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).
Simply said, Nicholas is simply one man, among the faithful many, who God has graciously saved for His work! Be sure during this Christmas season to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who was fully God and fully man. And be sure to tell others the story of the real St. Nicholas of Myra, who passionately defended the doctrine of the Biblical person of Christ.