"We need a little Christmas—right this very minute!” So goes a holiday song that you might be hearing these days, whether on the radio or at your local shopping center. It sure captures the sense of rush and busyness that you may be feeling this time of year. There is typically so much going on this month that you might start to wonder if it’s even possible to discover the joy of Christmas until it’s too late!
But don’t worry; there’s a saint for that. He’s the very personification of the “Christmas spirit,” in fact, because he’s the man who became Santa Claus: St. Nicholas of Myra. During his life, he was famous for his generosity and care for the needy, and his reputation for joy and kindness spread far and wide after his death. His spirit is just what we need as Christmas draws near.
Known for Generosity—and Much More. Actually, we don’t know much about Nicholas. It’s not surprising, since he lived during a turbulent time—the end of the third and beginning of the fourth centuries AD. He left behind no letters or writings, and his first known biography wasn’t written until the early ninth century, nearly five hundred years after his death!
But we do know that he was born into a wealthy family in the Mediterranean port of Patara, in present-day Turkey. His parents died when he was about eighteen years old, and left with their fortune, Nicholas resolved to spend the money to help the poor. We also know that he was named bishop of Myra, not far from Patara, when he was about thirty years old, and spent time in prison during the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians (AD 303–311). He likely attended the Council of Nicea in 325, and died around 335. And that’s about all the hard evidence we have.
While we don’t have historical documents about Nicholas, we do have ancient legends. Lots of them. They’re not the children’s bedtime stories from the last century, which turned him into the jolly red-suited figure who drives a sleigh and delivers gifts on Christmas Eve. No, these legends draw us into the spirit of St. Nicholas. They tell of mysterious gifts, nighttime visions, last-minute rescues, and marvelous multiplications of grain.
So was Nicholas a joyful, charitable soul who freely gave to those in need?
Was he a courageous protector of his people whose boldness saved them from famine?
Was he an advocate for justice who saved the wrongfully accused and returned kidnapped children to their parents?
He was all of the above! But he was more than the sum of these works of wonder. At his core, Nicholas was a saintly man who saw and met the needs right in front of him, all while boldly trusting God to provide. He was a generous man who did sometimes very ordinary, simple things that we can do as well.
The Legend of the Dowries. By far the most famous legend of St. Nicholas, and the one most closely tied to his identity as Santa Claus, is the tale of the three bags of gold. It happened while he was still a young man. The story tells of a poor man who had three daughters. The family fell on hard times, and the man had nothing left to provide a dowry for his daughters. In those days, girls needed to bring property or money—a dowry—into a marriage in order to attract a suitable husband. So these girls were not marriage material, and their father, out of desperation, decided his only option was to sell them into slavery.
Nicholas heard of the man’s dilemma and decided to do something about it. On three different nights, he filled a bag with some of the gold his parents had left him, made his way to the man’s house, and tossed the bag through an open window. Each bag contained just enough to allow one of the girls to marry. Some stories say the bag landed in a sock or shoe left out to dry near the fireplace—which would explain why children leave shoes out the night before his feast day (December 6) or hang stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve in the hopes of receiving a gift from St. Nick.
We could call this a miracle, but it just may have been that Nicholas was paying attention. This family lived in his town—by some accounts on his street—and he was aware of their situation. So he drew from his inheritance, and instead of giving it to a faceless beneficiary, he took simple steps to alleviate the need of a neighbor.
Being generous and attentive: that’s something we can all do. We can try to be more alert to the needs in front of us, and then do something practical to help.
The Legend of the Three Ships. As a bishop, Nicholas took seriously God’s command to protect his flock at Myra. One legend tells of a severe famine where the townsfolk were in danger of starving to death. When three merchant ships carrying grain came to Myra on the way to Constantinople, Nicholas took note. He met the ships at the harbor and boldly demanded that the captain give him one hundred bushels of grain from each ship. But how could the captain do that? The missing grain would be discovered the moment he arrived at the capital. Nicholas wouldn’t take no for an answer. He eventually convinced the captain, promising that he would take care of the missing grain himself.
Miraculously, when the ships arrived in Constantinople, they were not missing any grain. And those three hundred bushels fed the people of Myra for two years! Nicholas wanted to provide for his people, and he capitalized on an opportunity that presented itself. He trusted God to bless his efforts.
Being bold and trusting God’s provision as we take care of the people entrusted to us: that’s something we can all do, too.
Legends about Justice. Many legends tell of Nicholas’ dedication to justice. One recounts the story of three generals who had been wrongfully accused of plotting against the emperor Constantine. Believing the accusations, Constantine had decided to execute them. But Nicholas appeared to him in a dream, admonished him for listening to hearsay, and commanded him to release them at once. The emperor was so shaken by the dream that when he awoke, he immediately set the men free. (Coincidentally, these same generals had just been in Myra, where they had witnessed Nicholas intervening to stop the execution of three other innocent men.)
Another legend tells of a couple who conceived a longed-for son after visiting the tomb of St. Nicholas. When the boy was seven, he was kidnapped and taken to serve as the cupbearer of the king of Babylon. A year later, on the feast day of St. Nicholas, the boy was in the presence of the king when the saint appeard to him and whisked him back home. When he arrived, the boy was still holding the king’s cup! Nicholas wouldn’t let an unjust situation go uncorrected.
Being attuned to justice and willing to act to make things right: doesn’t Jesus call all of us to this?
Especially at this time of year, many people are feeling overwhelmed. Many are lonely, especially those who have lost a loved one recently. We can’t multiply food or travel through time to resolve an injustice. We may not have bags of gold. But we always have something to give. It could be making a simple meal for a lonely neighbor or bringing some flowers to brighten their home. It could be spending time with a family member who feels overwhelmed and overcommitted and who just needs someone to relax with. It could even be writing letters to people in prison or taking the time to visit a friend who is struggling with an illness.
The Gift of Presence. St. Nicholas teaches us that Christmas, and indeed life in general, is not about finding the perfect gift. It’s not about throwing the most lavish party or having the most beautifully decorated house. It’s about giving the gift of yourself—your attention, your time, your presence—to the people in your life. You will find that as you imitate St. Nicholas in this way, the generosity and compassion you share will naturally inspire other people to do the same. It’s contagious, like a spark that ignites hearts from one person to the next!
That spark is just what we need. So let the spirit of St. Nicholas change the way you approach Christmas this year. Notice how giving the gift of yourself produces a ripple effect in the people around you. You might be surprised by the peace and joy that fill your heart as you do.
Hallie Riedel is an editor with The Word Among Us.