Special to WorldTribune.com
By Bill Federer, September 5, 2019
“86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” declared the aged Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, as he stood in 155 AD before the Roman judge who ordered him to deny his faith or be killed.
During the first three centuries of Christianity, the Church suffered multiple waves of severe government persecution. One of the notable church leaders who was persecuted in the late 3rd century was St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas was the most renowned saint in early Greek Orthodox tradition, equivalent to St. Peter in Catholic tradition. He was as popular to Greeks, and later Russians, as St. Patrick was to the Irish, or as Saint Boniface (Winifred) was to the Germans.
Greek Orthodox tradition tells of Saint Nicholas being born around AD 280, the only child of a wealthy, elderly couple who lived in Patara, Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).
When his parents died in a plague, Nicholas inherited their wealth. Nicholas generously gave to the poor, but he did so anonymously, as he wanted the glory to go to God.
About this time, in the 3rd century, the pietist-monastic movement spread, where sincere converts to Christianity would give away all their money and possessions, then withdraw from the world to live in a cave as a hermit or join a monastery.
One notable incident that occurred during this time in Nicholas’ life was when a merchant in his town had gone bankrupt. The creditors threatened to take not only his house and property, but also his children.
The merchant had three daughters. He knew if they were taken it would probably condemn them to tragic lives of forced marriages, sex-trafficking, or prostitution.
The merchant had the idea of quickly marrying his daughters off so the creditors could not take them. Unfortunately, he did not have money for a dowry, which was needed in that area of the world for a legally recognized wedding.
Nicholas heard of the merchant’s dilemma and, late one night, threw a bag of money in the window for the oldest daughter’s dowry. Supposedly the bag of money landed in a shoe or a stocking that was drying by the fireplace. It was the talk of the town when the first daughter was able to get married.
Nicholas then threw a bag of money in the window for the second daughter, and she was able to get married. Expecting money for his third daughter, the merchant waited up. When Nicholas threw the money in, the father ran outside and caught him.
Nicholas made the father promise not to tell where the money came from, as he wanted the credit to go to God alone. This was the origin of secret, midnight gift-giving and hanging stockings by the fireplace on the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’ death, which was Dec. 6, 343 AD.
The three bags of money which Nicholas threw into the house are remembered by the three gold balls hung outside of pawnbroker shops — as they present themselves as rescuing families in their time of financial need. As a result, Nicholas became considered the “patron saint” of pawnbrokers.
After Nicholas had given away all his money, he decided to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he intended to join the secluded Monastery of Sion. Before making his final vows to join, somehow the Lord impressed upon him “not to hide his light under a bushel.” He decided to go back to Asia Minor, but not before visiting the birthplace of Jesus.
Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, 1869, of visiting the Church of the Nativity:
“This spot where the very first ‘Merry Christmas’ was uttered in all the world, and from whence the friend of my childhood, Santa Claus, departed on his first journey, to gladden and continue to gladden roaring firesides on wintry mornings in many a distant land forever and forever.”
Nicholas returned to the southern coast of Asia Minor, to the busy Mediterranean port city of Myra. Unbeknownst to him, the bishop had just died, and the church leaders could not decide who was to be their next bishop. One of the church leaders had a dream that the first person to church the next day would be named “Nicholas” and that he was to be their next bishop.
As his habit was, Nicholas fasted all night and was the first person to church the next day. The church leaders told him of the dream and that he was to be their next bishop. Nicholas was hesitant to accept, as the Roman Emperor was arresting bishops and killing them.
He finally relented and became the Bishop of Myra.
Soon after, Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned during Emperor Diocletian’s brutal persecution of Christians. There were ten major persecutions of Christians in the first three centuries, and Diocletian’s was the worst. Suddenly, Diocletian was struck with an intestinal disease so painful that he abdicated the throne on May 1, 305 AD.
The next emperor, Galerius, continued the persecution, but he was struck with an intestinal disease and died in 311 AD.
With no emperor, the Roman Empire was thrown into confusion. The four major generals decided to fight it out as to who would be the next emperor. General Constantine was in York, Britain, when he received the news. His men surrounded him and shouted “Hail Caesar!”
Constantine marched toward Rome to fight General Maxentius.
The day before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Oct. 28, 312 AD, Constantine reportedly saw the sign of Christ in the sky. The sign of Christ was the first two letters of the Greek name “Christ.”
The first letter “X” is called “Chi” and the second letter “P” is called “Rho.” Constantine put the “Chi-Rho” or “XP” on all his military banners. After his victory, he ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD — the first time in history that Christians were not persecuted by the government. Over the centuries, the sign of Christ was shortened to just the “Chi” or “X.” It was called the “Christ’s Cross” or “Criss-Cross.” This is the origin of “X-mas.”
During the reign of Emperor Constantine, Nicholas was let out of prison.
Now that it was legal to be a Christian, he preached publicly against pagan sexual immorality. He condemned the worship of the fertility goddess Artemis or Diana, whose temple was nearby, just as the Apostle Paul did as recorded in the Book of Acts, chapter 19.
The Temple to Diana at Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, twice as big as the Parthenon in Athens, having 127 huge pillars — and temple prostitutes. It was the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean world.
Nicholas’ fire and brimstone preaching led the people of Myra to tear down their local temple to Diana, and shortly thereafter, through the preaching of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (AD 397-403), the people tore down the enormous temple to Diana at Ephesus.
During this time, the Greek Olympics were ended, which were considered pagan, as they competed naked.
Nicholas preached against divination, human sacrifice, and exposure of unwanted infants, which was the Roman equivalent of abortion.
Then the first major heresy in church history began. A church leader named Arius began the Arian Heresy, saying Jesus was a created being and less than God. The heresy not only split the church, but the Roman Empire.
To settle it, Constantine ordered all the bishops to come to Nicea. It was the first time that all the bishops throughout the known world met together. There they ended the heresy by writing the Nicene Creed. The tradition is that St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea and was so upset at Arius for starting this heresy that he slapped him across the face. Evidently, Jolly Old St. Nick had a little temper!
Not only did Nicholas confront heretics, but also corrupt government politicians.
One story was of a Roman governor, in order to cover up his immoral acts, had falsely accused some innocent soldiers and sentenced them to be executed. When Nicholas heard of it, he rushed down and broke through the crowd. He grabbed the executioner’s sword and threw it down, and then publicly revealed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, what evil the governor had done.
The Governor, realizing that Nicholas had no way of knowing the details except by divine insight from God, fell on his knees and begged Nicholas to pray for him.
Greek Orthodox tradition attributes many miraculous answers to St. Nicholas’ prayers. Once a storm was so violent that fishermen and sailors were unable to get back to shore, so the people begged Nicholas to help. He went down to the docks and prayed, and the sea became calm so the fishermen and sailors could return safely to port, similar to the way Jesus calmed the sea as recorded in chapter 8 of the Gospel of Matthew. This led to Nicholas later being considered the “patron saint” of sailors.
When a famine spread across the land, Nicholas asked merchant ships carrying grain from North Africa to Rome, to unload some grain for his people, promising that God would bless them. On their return trip, they reported that the grain that was left in their ship had multiplied, like the little widow’s meal barrel as promised by Elijah in the First Book of Kings 17:16.
St. Nicholas died December 6, 343 AD.
In the 5th century a church was built in Myra in his honor. When it was damaged in an earthquake in 529 AD, Emperor Justinian rebuilt it. In 988 AD, Vladimir the Great of Russia converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and adopted Nicholas as the “patron saint” of Russia.
In the 11th century, Muslim jihad terrorists, the Seljuks Turks, invaded Asia Minor, killing Christians and destroying churches. They also demolished and desecrated the graves of Christian saints. Islamic Hadith Sahih Muslim (Book 4, No. 2115) states: “Do not leave an image without obliterating it, or a high grave without leveling it.” In a panic, Christians shipped the remains of St. Nicholas to the town of Bari on the southern coast of Italy in the year 1087.
Pope Urban II dedicated the church, naming it after St. Nicholas — Basilica di San Nicola de Bari. This officially introduced the Greek St. Nicholas to Western Europe. In the 11th century, Muslim Turks intensified their invasion. So many Greek Christians fled that Pope Urban II went to the Council of Claremont in 1095 and called upon European monarchs to send help.
Europe sent help — it was called the First Crusade. In a backwards sense, Western Europe might not have had St. Nicholas traditions if it had not been for Islamic jihadist invading Eastern Europe.
How did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus?
With St. Nicholas’ remains now in Italy, western Europeans quickly embraced the gift-giving traditions associated with him. By 1223, so much attention was being given to gift-giving during the Christmas season that Saint Francis of Assisi wanted to refocus the attention back to the humble birth of Christ.
Francis created the first “creche” or nativity scene, a humble manger of farm animals with the attention being on Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus — the Son of God come to dwell among men: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) ….
Though much has been added on to the story throughout the centuries, underneath it all, there was a godly, courageous Christian Bishop who lived in 4th century Asia Minor, named Nicholas.
Nicholas loved Jesus enough go into the ministry; he chose being imprisoned by the Romans rather than deny his Christian faith; he stood for the doctrine of the Trinity; he preached against sexually immoral pagan temples; he confronted corrupt politicians; and most notably of all, St. Nicholas was very generous, giving away all his money, anonymously, to help the poor in their time of need!