Saint Nicholas has a history of giving

by Paul Jarvis
Special to Sun Thisweek

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

And his official name is Saint Nicholas.

The feast day of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker – who lives eternally in the heavenly realm, and is very, very real – is just around the corner: Dec. 6. In fact, those who come to the St. Joseph Catholic Church’s Mass at 8:30 a.m. on that Thursday should make sure to put their shoes at the entrance of church. Even if you have to go to Mass in your stocking feet, you just might find something in them after Mass.

That is, if you’ve been a good and caring disciple.

Commercial interests created all sorts of fantastic stories about jolly ol’ St. Nick. But the real stories are not only fantastic, they are quintessentially Christian: stories of self-sacrificing love and care.

Historically, we can pinpoint the fact that Nicholas was the fourth century bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, an imperial Roman province of Asia Minor. (Now in Turkey. The current successor to Bishop Nicholas is the Greek-Melkite Catholic Archbishop Michel Abrass of Antioch, Titular Archbishop of Myra.)

As with many of the saints, we are able to capture the relationship which Nicholas had with God through the admiration that Christians have had for him for centuries. The man most Americans know as Santa Claus is said to have been born to relatively affluent Christian parents in Patara in the Roman Empire’s Asia Minor, where he also received his early schooling. He came to Myra to continue his studies.

A paternal uncle of his introduced him to the local bishop. The latter is said to have seen potential in the youth and had him trained for the priesthood under his patronage. Nicholas received his ordination as a priest at an early age. When his parents died Nicholas still received his inheritance, but is said to have given it away in charity.

Perhaps the best-known story about Nicholas concerns his charity toward a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters of marriageable age. Rather than see them sold into servitude (probably prostitution), Bishop Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through the poor man’s window on three separate occasions, thus enabling the daughters to be married. Over the centuries, this particular legend evolved into the custom of gift-giving on the saint’s feast. It also highlights how the best generosity is done anomously, or without regard for compensation.

Please join me in switching, more and more, to the use of “Saint Nicholas” in lieu of “Santa Claus.” Though Madison Avenue and Hollywood have put their materialistic and fantastic spin on the saint, they are indeed the same person. “Claus” or “Klaas” is the Dutch nickname for “Niklaas” or “Nicholas,” and “Santa” is simply Spanish for “Saint.”

Father Paul Jarvis is pastor of “The Historic Church of The Irish” – St. Joseph Catholic Church in Rosemount. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.

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