Saint Nicholas and the Origins of Secret Gift-Giving
He was a godly, courageous Christian Bishop who lived in 4th century Asia Minor.
“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.
He was the most renown saint in early Greek Orthodox tradition, equivalent to St. Peter in Roman Catholic tradition.
Nicholas was as popular to Greeks, and later to 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 December 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, October 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)
In 1517, Martin Luther began the Reformation.
He considered “saints days” as a distraction from Christ, so he effectively ended saints’ days in Protestant countries, including the popular “St. Nicholas Day.”
Since Germans like the gift-giving, Martin Luther moved the giving to December 25th to emphasize that all gifts come from the Christ Child.
The German pronunciation of Christ Child was “Christkindl,” which over the centuries became pronounced “Kris Kringle.”
As the Roman Catholic saying is that St. Peter is at the Gates of Heaven, a Greek Orthodox tradition developed from the prophecy that Jesus would return at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead, riding a white horse, and that the saints would return with him, riding white horses.
“And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.
His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself.
And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God …
And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King Of Kings, and Lord Of Lords.”
Revelation 19:14 added:
“… And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.”
As Nicholas was a saint, the reasoning went, he would certainly be one of multitude returning with Jesus, riding a white horse.
Since St. Nicholas was such a special saint, t he story became embellished with him coming back once a year for a mini-judgement day, to check up on the children to see if they are on the right track.
Over the centuries, the story evolved.
Saints came heaven, the New Jerusalem, the Celestial City — which turned into the North Pole.
In Norway there were no horses, so they had St. Nicholas riding a reindeer.
The Lamb’s Book of Life and the Books of Works were turned into the Book of the “Naughty and Nice.”
The angels turned into elves.
In England during Henry VIII’s reign, Christmas celebrations became sort of a Mardi Gras .
Mardi Gras was originally was a religious day at the beginning of Lent, followed by 40 days of fasting before Easter, but now is a lewd party in New Orleans.
Under Henry VIII, the Christmas holiday similarly became a time of partying, carousing, and wassailing — drinking spiced ale from house to house — and throwing some of it on apple trees as luck for a good harvest.
When Puritans took over England in 1642, they outlawed Christmas as it had become so worldly.
When Pilgrims first disembarked the Mayflower, the ship master, Christopher Jones, wrote in his log, December 25, 1620:
“At anchor in Plymouth harbor, Christmas Day, but not observed by these colonists, they being opposed to all saints’ days, etc …
A large party went ashore this morning to fell timber and begin building. They began to erect the first house about twenty feet square for their common use, to receive them and their goods.”
A year later, at the end of 1621, Pilgrim Governor William Bradford recorded in Of Plymouth Plantation:
“Herewith I shall end this year — except to recall one more incident, rather amusing than serious.
On Christmas Day the Governor called the people out to work as usual; but most of the new company excused themselves, and said it went against their consciences to work on that day.
So the Governor told them, if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed.
So he went with the rest, and left them; but on returning from work at noon he found them at play in the street, some pitching the bar, some at stool-ball, and such like sports.
So he went to them and took away their games, and told them that it was against his conscience that they should play and others work.
If they made the keeping of the day a matter of devotion, let them remain in their houses; but there should be no gaming and reveling in the streets.”
In 1659, when the Puritans were settling Massachusetts, they instituted a five shilling fine for anyone caught celebrating Christmas:
“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting … every such person so shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.”
The strict Puritan leader, Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), told his congregation, December 25, 1712:
“Can you in your conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honored, by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadan? You cannot possibly think so!
A Multitude of the Heavenly Host was heard Praising of God. But shall it be said, That at the Birth of our Saviour for which we owe as high Praises to God as they can do, we take the Time to Please the Hellish Legions, and to do Actions that have much more of Hell than of Heaven in them?”
But the Dutch loved Christmas and the St. Nicholas traditions.
The Dutch holiday tradition is that St. Nicholas comes once a year to give presents to good children.
But the naughty children had something else to look forward to.
St. Nicholas was accompanied by a Moorish costumed helper, Zwarte Piet, who would put naughty children into gunny sacks and take back to Spain where they would be sold into Muslim slavery.
So dreadful was the anticipation of St. Nicholas’ visit, that, according to ancedotal accounts, the night before, Dutch boys would go to sleep with pocket knives in their pockets in case they awoke and had to cut themselves out of Zwarte Piet’s gunny sack.
Beginning in 1624, Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas traditions to New Amsterdam, which became New York in 1664.
Dutch called Saint Nicholas — “Sant Nikolaus” or “Sinter Klass,” which became pronounced “Santa Claus.”
Living in New York was Washington Irving, the author of Legend of Sleepy Hallow and Rip Van Winkle.
He coined the name for New York as “Gotham City.”
Irving also wrote Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New York, 1809.
In it, he described St. Nicholas visiting once a year, but no longer wearing a bishop’s outfit, but a typical Dutch outfit of long-trunk hose, leather belt, boots, a hat, and a pipe.
“A goodly image of St. Nicholas, equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose, and a pipe …
The good St. Nicholas, who had appeared to him in a dream the night before, and whom he had known by his broad hat, his long pipe.”
Washington Irving wrote further:
“So we are told, in the sylvan days of New Amsterdam, the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city, of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the treetops, or over the roofs of houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites …
He never shows us the light of his countenance, nor ever visits us, save one night in the year; when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children …
The good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. And he descended hard … And he lit his pipe by the fire …
And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave … a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared …
The significant sign of St. Nicholas, laying his finger beside his nose and winking hard with one eye …”
Irving wrote how Dutch settlers continued the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace:
“At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St.Nicholas Eve;
which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children …
Nor was the day of St. Nicholas suffered to pass by without making presents, hanging the stocking in the chimney, and complying with all its other ceremonies.”
Washington Irving explained that St. Nicholas was not only the patron saint of the Manhattan colony, but the namesake of their first church, begun in 1628, being the oldest corporate body in what is now the United States:
“Finally, that they … should not be required to acknowledge any other saint in the calendar than St. Nicholas, who should thenceforward, as before, be considered the tutelar (patron) saint of the city …
They built a fair and goodly chapel within the fort, which they consecrated to his name …
I am moreover told that there is a little legendary book somewhere extant, written in Low Dutch, which says that the image of this renowned saint, which graced the bow-sprit of the (ship) Goede Vrouw, was elevated in front of this chapel … the great church of St. Nicholas.”
For over three centuries, St. Nicholas Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church was the oldest congregation in Manhattan and the most eminent Protestant church in the city, often referred to as “the Protestant Cathedral of New York.”
President Theodore Roosevelt attended there.
Financial mismanagement resulted in church elders selling it to the Sinclair Oil Company, which demolished it in 1949 to build an office building.
Remaining church members merged with New York’s Marble Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church.
Clement Moore was a Hebrew professor in New York at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which was built on land donated by his family in the neighborhood of Chelsea.
Clement Clarke Moore Park is located in New York City at the corner of 10th Avenue and 22nd Street.
He helped Trinity Church establish a new church on Hudson Street — St. Luke in the Fields.
In 1823, Clement Moore wrote a poem for his six children titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas”:
‘TWAS the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung
by the chimney with care,
In hopes that ST. NICHOLAS
soon would be there …“
"When, what to my wondering
eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh,
and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver,
so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment
it must be ST. NICK …”
“So up to the house-top
the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys,
and ST. NICHOLAS too …”
“As I drew in my head,
and was turning around,
Down the chimney ST. NICHOLAS
came with a bound …”
Clement Moore described St. Nicholas as smaller:
“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.”
In 1843, the first lithographic Christmas cards were printed, and Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol,” with the characters of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.
During the Civil War, Harper’s Weekly Magazine had an illustrator named Thomas Nast, famous for creating the Republican elephant and Democrat mule in his political cartoons.
Nast drew St. Nicholas visiting Union troops with a “North Pole” sign behind St. Nick as a political jab at the Confederate South.
In the early 1900s, Haddon Sundblom was a artist famous for his creation of the Quaker Oats man and Aunt Jemima Syrup.
In 1930, Coca Cola hired Sundblom to create a painting of Santa Claus drinking Coke, which he did annually for the next 33 years.
With Coca Cola pioneering mass-marketing to become the most well-known trademark name in the world, Sundblom’s version of Santa Claus became the most recognizable.
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 to 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!
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