As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky. So up to the house-top the coursers they flew, with the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too. (Clement Clarke Moore)
So, just who is this Saint Nicholas? What does he have to do with Christmas? Even the young Jewish girl, Anne Frank, wrote about Saint Nicholas while hiding from the Nazi soldiers:
Once again St. Nicholas Day
Has even come to our hideaway;
It won't be quite as fun, I fear,
As the happy day we had last year.
Then we were hopeful, no reason to doubt
That optimism would win the bout,
And by the time this year came round,
We'd all be free, and safe and sound.
Still, let's not forget it’s St. Nicholas Day,
Though we've nothing left to give away.
We'll have to find something else to do:
So everyone please look in their shoe!”
Nicholas was born around AD 270 to Christian parents, both of whom had spent time in prison, persecuted for their Christian beliefs. It was the law of the Roman Empire, and the officials were encouraged to confiscate Christians’ possessions, burn their books, and put them in prison or kill them, if need be.
Shortly after the birth of Nicholas, another baby boy was born into the Roman Empire. His name was Constantine. He was born where the present city of Nis, Serbia, is located. His father, Flavius Constantinus, was part of the Emperor’s personal body guard. Eventually, his father worked his way up through the Roman ranks to become not just a Caesar, but an “Augusti,” and ruled over the areas of France, Germany, and Britain in about 307. Constantine proved himself as an intelligent, disciplined, and brave military commander and began climbing the ladder of success in the Roman system. Somewhere along the line Constantine bumped into and embraced Christianity.
Constantine returned from battle in the spring of 303, in time to witness the beginnings of Emperor Diocletian's “Great Persecution,” the most severe persecution of Christians in Roman history. The Roman courts demanded universal persecution for all Christians. In the months that followed, churches and scriptures were destroyed, Christians were deprived of official ranks, stripped of their wealth, and priests were killed or imprisoned.
In the meantime . . . young Nicholas was dedicated to God by his parents in the church at Patara and baptized by the Bishop, who happened to be his uncle. Nicholas became a priest and eventually became the Archbishop of Myra. His personal generosity became legendary. He gave away his own personal holdings to the poor. His personal hobbies were making toys and books for the abandoned children of the orphanages. “Papouli” the children would call to him as he made certain that all those he met never had to do without the necessities of life.
Nicholas spent a considerable amount of time in prison because of his ministry, but because of the many miracles attributed to Archbishop Nicholas, he became known as the wonder worker. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Other recorded deeds included arranging for a ship load of wheat to be delivered to Myra following a severe drought, his saving some children from drowning, and saving three daughters from lives of prostitution because their father could not raise sufficient money for dowry.
Nicholas continuously taught his people, “The giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic God’s giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.” His spirit of giving became contagious, and others discovered the joy of unselfish giving to those around them. Nicholas’ humility exalted him, and his very poverty enriched him.
Constantine became best known for being the first "Christian" Roman emperor. In February 313, Constantine met with Co-Emperor Licinius in Milan, where they developed the Edict of Milan. The edict stated that Christians should be allowed to follow the faith without oppression. It removed penalties for professing Christianity, under which many had been martyred during the persecutions, and the edict returned the confiscated property. The edict protected from religious persecution not only Christians but all religions, allowing anyone to worship as they would choose.
Constantine’s and Nicholas’ paths crossed throughout the rest of their lives. The Church at Rome began inviting Constantine to host some of their councils as a defender of the orthodox faith. In 325, Saint Nicholas was invited as an Archbishop to the Council of Nicaea regarding the nature of Christ. Nicolas was one of the signors of the Nicene Creed.
Before long, Co-Emperor Licinius’ troops were in a civil war with Constantine’s army. Licinius’s armies were defeated and Licinius was slain. Constantine became the single and most powerful Emperor of the Roman Empire. He then moved the capital to the “New Rome” in Constantinople, where it prevailed for another one thousand years. He became actively involved in building basilicas, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and supporting churches and missions, and promoting Christians to high offices. Constantine was baptized shortly before his death in May, 337.
I love the unique phenomenon of the concurrent lives of Constantine and Saint Nicholas. It is such an overlooked story and such a great example of global transformation taking place at the intersection of culture and economics. In my imagination, I can see each man standing at the intersection deciding how to answer the all-prevailing question, “What’cha gonna do with what’cha got?” What they decided to do, and what they each decided to contribute, altered the course of history. For nearly seventeen hundred years we have reaped the benefits of the decisions of Emperor Constantine.
The generous life of Saint Nicholas became the historical model for the DutchSinterklaas, often called "De Goede Sint," and eventually morphed into the British character, Father Christmas, to create the character known to Britons and Americans as Santa Claus. Remember this: Your greatest reward in living will be realized through your giving. Merry Christmas, St. Nick!