By Fr. Steve Ryan, SDB
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek. Now it is on the southern coast of Turkey. Nicholas’ wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while he was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a fairly young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, ESPECIALLY to children.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests and deacons, there was no room for real criminals (murderers, thieves and robbers). After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. This council was hugely important in Church history. The Nicean Creed we say at Mass on Sundays was put forth definitively as the Christian profession of faith at that council.
Nicholas died on December 6, AD 343 in Myra. He was proclaimed a saint of the Church in a very short time. So loved was Nicholas that his canonization was called forth by the people. Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.
One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer something of value – a dowry – to prospective husbands. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. In the story, this poor man’s daughters (without dowries) were destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, three bags of gold appeared in their home providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.