He’s not a synonym for the fat man who comes down the chimney at Christmas, especially in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where he’s especially revered. Let’s set the record straight.
- He was born in 270 CE to wealthy parents of Greek descent in Patara, now southeastern Turkey.
- After they died of an epidemic, he went to live with an uncle, also named Nicolas, who was bishop of Patara and guided him into the priesthood. After ordination, he gave away his large inheritance to those in need, establishing his reputation for generosity.
- During the first half of his life, it was illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Even so, he was ordained bishop of Myra, also in southeastern Turkey, before being imprisoned for refusing to worship idols.
- After his release from prison in 305, he zealously made the rounds of local pagan temples and shrines, smashing their idols and turning their temples to dust, as the account goes.
- In 325, Nicholas was sufficiently esteemed to be summoned by Emperor Constantine to a gathering to discuss issues Christians were facing. There, at the First Ecumenical Council, he became so outraged at hearing views voiced by Arius (“the first heretic”) that he either punched or slapped the offender. He was then stripped of his bishop’s robes and thrown into prison because it was illegal to strike someone in the presence of the emperor, to say nothing of his own violation of his bishop’s code of non-violence or self-restraint. While in shackles, Nicholas repented of his actions but not his views, and then received a nighttime visitation by Christ and the Theotokos (Virgin Mary). Constantine freed him the next morning. (Nicholas is somehow not mentioned in the writings of any of the people who were actually at the sessions. Ahem. It’s still a hot story.)
- In another report, a formerly wealthy man had three daughters of marriageable age but not the money for a dowry or prika for them to be married to good men. He feared they might become slaves. When Nicolas heard of the man’s plight, he came by the house secretly at night and tossed a sack of gold through the window, where it bounced into a sock or a shoe. This happened each time before a daughter’s wedding. The third time, the father saw who the secret donor was. Nicolas pleaded with him to keep the secret. In another, more salacious version, the father had planned to sell off his daughters, into either slavery or prostitution, and Nicholas arranged to save them all from a host of sins.
- He is attributed with many miracles, including saving drowning people at sea, rescuing three innocent soldiers from execution, and restoring at least one mortally injured sailor.
- He’s widely known as Nicholas the Wonderworker and one of the highly regarded Eastern Orthodox saints.
- He died peacefully in his sleep in 343 in his old age, that is, 73.
- In 1087, Italian sailors from Bari seized at least part of the saint’s remains from the church where he was buried in Myra, over the objections of Greek Orthodox monks. Two years later, Pope Urban II personally placed those relics under the altar at the new Basilica di San Nicola in Bari. For the Eastern Orthodox and Turks alike, it remains theft.
So much for Santa Claus, eh?