Summary: The real story of Saint Nicholas, stripping away the myths and discovering a man who honored Christ
“Nicholas the Wonder Worker”
Rev Dr Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Clement Moore writes, “With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick!” Moore was inspired by a plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh through the snow-covered streets of New York City on Christmas Eve in the year 1822. We all have a perception of this jolly old fellow, but to understand the real person we need to look back to the 4th Century to discover a truly godly man.
Nicholas was born in the town Patara in Lycia/Asia Minor, a place visited by Luke and Paul, on their way from Miletus to Jerusalem during their 3rd Missionary Journey (Acts 21) in AD 55. Nicholas’ name means “conqueror of nations”; he certainly conquered their hearts. Nicholas was the only child of a wealthy merchant family, but he wasn’t spoiled by his family’s wealth. His parents, Theophanes and Nonna, taught him to be generous to others, especially those in need. He was still fairly young when his parents died of the plague, leaving him the sole heir of their sizeable estate. He determined to devote his inheritance to works of charity. Nicholas came to see that helping others makes one richer in life than anything else. Many legends and stories tell of his acts of kindness, especially toward children.
Saint Nicholas studied in Alexandria, Egypt and became a monk in the monastery of Holy Zion near the port city of Myra in Turkey. Finding in the monastery a quiet life and a peaceful haven for contemplation, Nicholas would have been content to spend the remainder of his life here without ever going out into the world. But God showed him a different calling. Nicholas spent his ministry among everyday people, involving himself in their lives, not cloistered away, cut off from the world. He suffered under the brutal persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Nicholas was tortured and imprisoned for his faith. It wasn’t until the decree of the Christian emperor Constantine that Nicholas was released. He returned to Myra and became Archbishop of the city by unanimous consent.
After receiving his priestly office, his life was open to all. Nicholas took seriously Jesus’ urging, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father Who is in heaven.” By his acts of kindness Nicholas became an example of faith, love, and purity. He chose a simple lifestyle, shunning expensive clothing, food and other luxuries. He spent his time listening to his congregation, showing compassion and sensitivity to their needs. The doors of his house were open to all. He was like a father to orphans; to the poor a merciful giver, to the weeping a comforter, to the wronged an advocate, and to all a great benefactor. He was often seen riding through the streets on a white horse. Bishop Nicholas helped anyone in difficulty, quietly disappearing without waiting for thanks. He shunned publicity, but his reputation as a holy man grew. He was devoted to Christ and would be dismayed at all the attention he’s received, to the point of becoming a mythic substitute for our Savior.
There are many stories of Nicholas’ kindness. The most well-known is how he helped a needy family. Nicholas heard of a rich nobleman in Myra who lost all his money when his business failed. The man had three daughters all hoping to get married, but he had no money for their wedding or dowry. The businessman was afraid that no one would want to marry them and he considered selling one as a slave to help the other two. Nicholas heard about the family and wanted to help, but he didn’t want anyone to know that he was the one helping them. He approached their house with three small bags of gold, and tossed them through an open window, then vanished into the darkness. Another version of the story claims he climbed on the roof. He didn’t come down the chimney but rather he dropped gold coins down the chimney three nights in a row so they’d land in the girls’ stockings which had been hung by the fire to dry. He must’ve had pretty good aim! This is where we get the custom of hanging stockings by the fireplace. Another symbol of Nicholas are his three bags or balls of gold which became a sign of bankers, moneylenders and pawnbrokers. This practice began with merchants of Northern Italy. Getting back to the story, the father of the girls hid behind the chimney the third night, and there discovered his bishop. In both versions of the tale the dad finds out who the benefactor is. When Nicholas was asked why he was being anonymous, he replied, “It’s good to give and have only God know about it.” He became known as Nicholas the Wonder Worker. 21 miracles have been attributed to him.