Rediscovering A Christmas Icon: Nicholas the Wonderworker

The real saint Nicholas was a radical man of faith.

The real saint Nicholas was a radical man of faith.

The celebration of Christmas as we know it today has a long history that began many centuries ago. While Jesus is truly the focal point of our worship and devotion, this season is also dominated by another icon. The central mythology of Christmas for many people is focused on the magic and personality of Santa Claus. But this jolly character in the red suit we know today seems to point us away from the incarnation of Jesus and more towards a consumeristic obsession with receiving gifts. Although the modern day icon has it’s source in a variety of cultures and mythologies a large portion of the legend of Santa Claus is rooted in the extraordinary life of one of the most widely celebrated Christians in all of Church history- a 4th Century Greek Bishop named Nicholas.

Born to wealthy parents in what is present day Turkey, he became an orphan at a young age, when his parents were killed in an epidemic. This renowned Bishop of Myra was known as Nicholas the Wonderworker because of his many miracles and other exploits of faith. He was widely known for his radical acts of mercy and care for children and the poor:

“As a bishop, Nicholas, servant of God, was first and foremost a shepherd of the people, caring for their needs. His active pursuit of justice for his people was demonstrated when he secured grain in time of famine, saved the lives of three men wrongly condemned, and secured lower taxes for Myra. He taught the Gospel simply, so ordinary people understood, and he lived out his faith and devotion to God in helping the poor and all in need.”

One of his most well known legends highlights the plight of a man who had no dowry for his three daughters. This story is translated from Symeon the Metaphrast’s collected lives of the saints from oral tradition and written accounts in the 10th century:

“There was a man, once famous, who had fallen into obscurity and from riches to poverty. He had been reduced to extreme want in all material ways. When the day came that he lacked the very essentials of life (ah, shame! to what extreme does poverty progress!), he determined to sell into prostitution at a price his three beautiful daughters to whoever were willing to buy, with the profit from each to sustain himself and them. It was impossible for him to marry them off; for because of their excessive poverty, all beaux disdained them. Now once having convinced himself, he pondered the disreputable plan, and was already making the first move toward that shameless act. But Thou, Lord, Who art by nature both good and the source of every good, and dost benignly hearken to our needs, didst convey news of this plight to the ears of Nicholas. And Thou didst send him like a good angel and ready helper to that poor man, who had already reached the point of decision, that Nicholas might at one and the same time relieve his poverty and free him from that which was more oppressive than poverty.

Let us scrutinize together the compassion mingled with good sense of this saint. For Nicholas could not bear either to approach him to discuss the matter (however briefly), or show him the hand that should rescue him, as those are wont to do who bare that hand for philanthropy but with a mean and earthbound heart. For he sensed what arrogance it would be to approach one who had fallen from riches and glory into want—how it would cover one with shame and too vividly recall his one-time felicity. Rather, just as Nicholas was striving to live up to the evangelic precept that a good deed must not be identified as the act of a Christian lest the Christian use his beneficence for his own gain, so he should divorce himself from this deed and not seek glory from men. Indeed, whenever he did anything good, he tried harder to hide his actions than do those who do evil.

So, after he had bagged a sum of gold, in the dead of night he went to that man’s home. The minute he had thrown the bag through the window, he hastily returned to his home, disquieted at the thought of being seen. When the poor man arose later in the morning, he found the gold. Loosing the string with difficulty, he was dumfounded, thinking himself deluded and fearing that what he saw before him was fool’s gold. For in such circumstances how could he imagine that a benefactor would be willing for him to benefit without knowing the source of the benefaction? Then assaying the gold with the sensitive tips of his fingers and scrupulously testing it, he concluded that it was in fact gold. He was elated, he marveled, he was transported. In the realization of such joy he shed warm tears. Mentally checking down the roll of all his many acquaintances, he could find none to whom he could ascribe what had been done. He attributed this gift to God, incessantly and tearfully rendering thanks to Him.

Then with overflowing heart he strove before all else to erase the mischief of his sin against God. He married off one of his daughters, the eldest of course, providing as dowry for her the mysterious gold which had so abundantly been supplied…” (Read the rest of the story)

This story goes on to speak of Nicholas’ continued kindness as he again repeats the same generosity in response to the dire circumstances of the other daughters. Other stories speak of his radical expressions of faith in GOD and love for people. This Christmas season, let us remember Nicholas‘ example and pursue, as he did, a radical devotion to Jesus and the power of embodying GOD’s kingdom in simplicity and, even sometimes hidden, exploits of faith.