Long before reindeer named Rudolph and trees adorned with lights became symbols of Christmas and long before wrapping paper and silvery bows were the ideal way to give, Nikolaos of Myra lived out a series of selfless acts that would be remembered for the ages. His legacy of giving has become a tradition of millions around the world. Yet, little is known about the original secret giver who would be later be mythologized as Santa Claus.
Because he lived so long ago, few historical records can be found corroborating the numerous tales of his life. It is known that he lived during the 4th century, that he became arch bishop of the port city of Myra and that during his time of service to the Greeks he would have faced violent persecution and imprisonment from the Roman Emperor Diocletian. His name is tied to the character of generosity and giving and has been celebrated for centuries, most notably through the names of Nikolaos the Wonderworker, Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus. So it is likely that the stories of his generosity are true. The image of St. Nicholas is found more often than any other during the middle ages and he has become the patron saint of many nations, cities and for several classes of people, most commonly children and sailors.
Nikolaos of Myra was born to a wealthy Greek family in the port city of Myra in Lycia around 270 A.D. This would later become the nation of Turkey. His parents named him Nikolaos (Νικόλαος) meaning “hero of the people” in Greek. He would live up to his name even while he was young. Historical legend suggests that both parents died while he was young and the orphaned Nicholas began using his inheritance to help the people around him during a terrible famine. The most repeated tale of Nikolaos’s generosity was about a man who was too poor to pay his daughter’s dowries. The father was in great debt and was now likely to disgrace the family further by not being able to marry off his three daughters. Not wanting to become the focus of praise and honor, Nikolaos Secretly placed the necessary gold in the man’s house so his eldest daughter could be married. It is said he did this again shortly after for the other two daughters when they were ready to marry. Stories of his selfless generosity like these take place throughout his life.
Saint Nicholas’ religious beliefs were responsible for his concern for the poor and would land him (and thousands of other Christian clergy) in prison until the rule of Emperor Constantine in 306 A.D. Those imprisoned during the rule of Diocletian faced torture tactics and conditions of suffering unparalleled in history. After imprisonment Bishop Nicholas would return to generously serving amongst the poor and needy for many years and would die on December 6, 343 A.D. Decades after his death, his relics were transferred to Bari in southern Italy, which is why he is often referred to as Saint Nicholas of Bari.
Renowned for his great kindness and his generous aid to those in distress, Nickolaos has inspired many to give, serve and remember the poor during the Holiday Season. In memory of his charity, many people around the world would hold a feast for the poor and give secret gifts on December 5th or 6th.
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