by Maria Evans
Most everyone knows that St. Nicholas is the prototype for the person we call Santa Claus and without a doubt, what has been attributed to St. Nicholas is that of a beloved gift-giver, climber of chimneys (to throw bags of gold down them so poor unmarried women might have a dowry), and lover of children. We might even know he’s considered a patron saint of pawnbrokers, sailors, and had a miracle attributed to him where he restored back to life three young men who had been murdered by a wicked innkeeper who pickled his victims in brine. If we’re really a church nerd, we might even know the story where he allegedly punched Arius in Nicholas’ defense of orthodoxy vs. the Arian heresy. (Who would have known that saying the Father was greater than the Son would have led to fisticuffs?)
Present day scholarship leads us to believe all those great stories were…well…stories. Truth is, we know relatively little about the actual St. Nick. We know he was born in Myra, in what we’d now know is western Turkey. We know he was a bishop. There’s at least evidence from the 9th century onward that he attended the Council of Nicea (but no contemporary evidence from that time that he punched Arius.). A great deal of what has been attributed to St. Nicholas comes from the 9th century to medieval times, when there was some degree of pressure to justify his sainthood. Consequently, his hagiography puts him squarely in the “too good to be true” category. (I think my favorite one is the assertion that even as an unweaned infant, he fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.)
We don’t like to consider the possibility that his story is more story than fact, and that somehow this knowledge could make us less of a believer. But here it is–his story, as it’s been told to us. Knowing his story had kernels of truth here and there wrapped around legend can make us a little nervous. If this story is not entirely historically accurate, it’s not much of a mental jump to start fretting that, if we could be wrong about St. Nicholas, maybe we’re wrong about Jesus. Or anything else pertaining to Christianity, for that matter.
Look what DID happen, though. Chances are, people had a reason to WANT to tell those stories about all those miracles and kindnesses. Chances are, Nicholas was a beloved enough real life figure that the stories made sense. Chances are, the stories led people to be unashamed of their own desire to give to others anonymously. In effect, Nicholas became an icon through which we see the spirit of anonymous goodness today…and maybe that’s the real truth of his life.
What is it that you love about your own anonymous gift-giving? How does the legendary life of Nicholas of Myra help you see God’s goodness in yourself and in the world around you?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a transitional Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.
St. Nicholas By Unknown – This image is available from the National Library of WalesYou can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, CC0, Link