His feast day will be on Sunday, though it will probably pass right by most Americans. For long ago, the fourth-century bishop of an obscure town in Turkey was transformed into a commercialized and confusing symbol of the season who currently sits enthroned behind plexiglass in many stores or malls. What’s more, the annual remembrance of him now comes some nineteen days after the day he died on December 6 in 343 A.D., almost seventeen centuries ago.
We should also say that he was probably neither fat nor particularly jolly. For during a time of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, the bishop became known for being a fiery and wiry defender of the faith, imprisoned at times for defying orders to renounce his beliefs or surrender bibles to be burned. It’s said that he once intervened in a court proceeding to stop an execution, berating the judge until he admitted that he had accepted bribes and the sentence was reversed.
Another legend suggests that at the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the good bishop got into an argument with a well-known heretic from Egypt named Arius who had been arguing that Jesus was not co-eternal with God. But after he could no longer stand what he was hearing, the bishop got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face, only afterwards asking God for His forgiveness though he did not waver in his faith.
(To be sure, the story is a bit suspect as Arius might not have even been at Nicaea as he was not himself one of the 300 bishops gathered there. But that, of course, hasn’t stopped modern memes from depicting a rather stern-looking Byzantine saying, “Deck the halls? Try deck the heretic.” Or as one version of the song has put it, “I Saw Santa Punching Arius.”)
When it comes to kids, however, the tales about Nicholas of Myra are far more endearing. For in the most well-known of them, he saved three young girls from a life of poverty by secretly delivering three bags of gold to their debt-ridden dad in order to pay for their dowries. And in the Middle Ages a popular story even told of how Nicholas not only solved the murder of three young boys in one town but restored them to life as well.
It’s no wonder thus that Nicolas became known as the patron saint and champion of children, then sailors and whole countries, including Greece and Russia. And even though he was ignored by many after the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch refused to give him up as the ultimate gift-giver, bringing “Sinterklaas” with them to the New World colonies. Later still, poets and writers completed the transformation and relocated him from the Mediterranean to the North Pole for reasons that still aren’t very clear to anyone.
Before Christmas comes thus, and the real story is overshadowed once more, perhaps it’s appropriate to remember the actual saint on Sunday. For like the Lord whom he followed, Nicholas knew that it really is more blessed to give than to receive, just as God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son indeed.
What’s more, I’m fairly confident indeed that St. Nick would have been the first to tell you that the journey from Heaven to Earth was longer and more incredible than any one-night gift-giving jaunt around the whole world could ever be.
Especially if you don’t stop to slap a heretic along the way.