“Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound,” the author Clement Clarke Moore declared in the poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” in 1822. This Saint Nicholas was based on a historical figure, the Greek bishop of Myra, located in present-day Turkey. A popular saint in many countries, it was the Dutch pronunciation of his name, Sinterklaas, which they would bring to America that eventually became Santa Claus.
Nicholas was born in Patara in the late 3rd century, in the Roman province of Lycia, around 50 miles from Myra. He grew up in a wealthy Christian family. His parents died when Nicholas was in his teens or early twenties, leaving him with a tidy sum of money. A story depicted in art first tells of his kindness and generosity when he was a young man before becoming a bishop.
In Patara, there was a man with three daughters who had lost all of his money. This cause the man great distress, as he did not have a dowry for his daughters and would be unable to provide it for them to get married. Hearing this, young Nicholas came to the house at night and threw a bag of gold through the window. Finding this gold, the man was able to provide the dowry for one of his daughters to get married. Then, on another night, Nicholas secretly through another bag of gold through the window. This gold provided another dowry for the second daughter to be married. The father, wanting to find out who was being such generosity, kept a watch on the window at night. When a third bag came through the window, he dashed outside to find Nicholas. Nicholas asked him to not tell anyone, and the father promised not to. The father must have eventually told the story, as we know about it today. Thus began this idea of secret gifts arriving at night in association with St. Nicholas. Although houses at the time would not have had chimneys, the story did morph into the idea that one night the windows were locked, so he threw the gold down the chimney, falling into a sock drying by the fire. In art, this is also depicted as Saint Nicholas with three gold balls.
Nicholas eventually became the bishop of Myra. Being a Roman province, Christians were consistently persecuted. In 303, the emperor Diocletian began the last major persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, resulting in the destruction of churches and the torture and execution of Christians who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. It was during this time that Nicholas, now a bishop, was thrown into jail.
It was in February 313, that Emperor Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, met with Western Roman Emperor Constantine, and agreed to treat Christians benevolently. The Edict of Milan gave Christianity legal status and a reprieve from persecution. It was the Licinius Letter, as it became to be known, on June 13 313, that allowed citizens to practice any religion.
It is possible that Nicholas attended the First Council of Nicaea, a council of Christian bishops convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. Although his name did not appear on the first attendance list, it did appear on subsequent lists.
Nicholas became well known not for how he died, but how he lived his life. One story, known as the Praxis de stratelatis (story of the three military officers), that told of Emperor Constantine sending and army to Frigia (in Anatolia, now part of Turkey), to put down unrest and dissension. The soldiers arrived at Andriake, the port of Myra. Some of the soldiers separated from the main group, to find and buy food for the whole party. Shortly some looters, impersonating those soldiers, were looting and pilfering. The Myrians mobbed the soldiers, arresting three officers, thinking they were to blame. Bishop Nicholas appeared, and the soldiers recognized him and told him “We are peaceful. Our most benign emperor sent us to engage in battle with some lawbreakers, and we are on our way. Pray for us, most holy father, that we may prosper on our journey.”
Nicholas invited the soldiers back to Myra with him, eventually returning to the plaza where the three officers were being held by the crowd and about to be executed. Nicholas arrived at the scene just as the executioner was about to behead the soldiers.
At that moment Nicholas fearlessly grabbed the sword from the executioner and cast it to the ground stating, “The righteous are bold as a lion”. Loosening the men from their chains and then took the soldiers with him to the city.
It was many stories like this that Saint Nicholas would become very popular, demonstrating his generosity and Christ-like qualities, and become the patron saint of sailors and of children. Saint Nicholas would often be depicted in red robes with a long white beard.