Santa Claus is synonymous with the culture of Christmas, but before the common image of a fat man in read coat guzzling down Coca-Cola, he was a real man known as Saint Nicholas of Myra. He taught the Gospel simply, so ordinary people understood, and he lived out his faith and devotion to God in helping the poor and all in need. He was such a devoted and holy bishop that, much like Mother Teresa, people regarded him as a saint while he was still alive. There are more churches named after St. Nicholas than any other saint with the possible exception of the Virgin Mary. More than 2,000 churches are named after him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England. Amongst many other things, he is the patron saint of sailors and in the Greek world sailors still wish one another safe voyages with the words, “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.”
Saint Nicholas was born in the third century around 275 AD in Patara, a village on the southeast Lycian coast on the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Turkey. There existed in Patara an early Christian community which was likely started by the Apostle Paul when he and Luke were there on Paul’s third missionary journey to Tyre in the first century. Three miles from Patara is the capital of Lycia called Myra, which was the seat of a bishopric founded by St. Nicander.
Nicholas was brought up by pious and virtuous parents, his father Epiphanes and his mother Johane, who had been practicing Christianity for several generations and taught him to study the Scriptures at a young age. Nicholas’s parents were relatively wealthy business owners; some say that they managed a fishing fleet. His parents died during a plague while he was still young, leaving him with a substantial fortune. Michael the Archimandrite wrote The Life of Saint Nicholas in the first half of the 9th century. Here he writes about how Saint Nicholas asked God for direction:
“Make known to me, Lord, the path upon which I am to journey, because to You I have lifted my soul from all triviality and worldly lowliness.” (Psalm 143.8). He seemed to hear God, as it were, speaking clearly through the holy prophet David: “Even if wealth abounds, do not surrender your heart” (Psalm 62.11). And similarly the author of Proverbs plainly teaches: “Let almsgiving and acts of faith not abandon you, but fasten them around your neck and you will find grace” (Proverbs 3.3) as well as “That person benefits his soul, who has pity on the destitute and those who happen to be poor in their livelihood.” (Proverbs 11.17). Nicholas did not cease to continually hand over his abundance — to store it up in the secure treasure-houses of heaven.”