The year was 280 A.D. This was twenty-one years prior to the country of Armenia, Asia Minor (present day Turkey) rejecting the Persian Zoroastrian religion and becoming the first country to officially declare itself Christian; twenty-two years prior to the violent persecution of Christians by Roman Emperor Diocletian; and thirty-three years prior to Roman Emperor Constantine's grant of official toleration to the Christian religion.
There lived in the region of Patara, Asia Minor, a wealthy, elderly couple who were never able to have children. Like Abraham and Sarah of the Bible, though, they received a son after many years of prayer. They considered this child a direct gift from God with a special calling to help people; therefore they named him "Nicholas," which means in Greek "hero of the people." They died when he was just a teenager, leaving him not only a rich inheritance, but also a generous disposition to help the poor.
Nicholas' devotion to God led him to enter the nearby monastery of Sion and become ordained as a minister. His uncle, who was the bishop performing the ceremony, prophesied that he would "offer guidance and consolation to many people, and eventually become a bishop whose life would enlighten the hearts of people to know the Lord." Nicholas eventually became the archbishop of the church in the coastal city of Myra, Asia Minor.
Bishop Nicholas was known for spending all night in prayer studying scripture so he could explain it to his people. He was continually praying, fasting, and helping the poor. He gained a reputation for steadfastness, goodness and great faith.
Once he was reported to have saved a baby from being burnt after scalding water had been accidentally dropped on him. Another time he made the sign of the cross over an insane, uncontrollable boy and, like the Gospels, the demons fled and the boy became sound of mind.
Being that Myra was a port city, numerous times storms would arise that were so violent ships were unable to return to shore. It was reported that after he prayed, the seas would become calm and the boats could dock safely.
Once there was a famine in the area so severe that people were starving. Nicholas responded to the situation by going down to the docks and asking some ships bound for Alexandria, North Africa, to unload some of their grain to help his people. He promised the sailors that whatever they gave, God would restore it to them before they reached their destination. On their return trip, the sailors reported that the bishop's word had been fulfilled!
Bishop Nicholas boldly confronted the pagan "Diana" worship, which was still prevalent in that coastal area, and won many converts. He was persecuted for his faith, and was even imprisoned under the last great Christian Persecution (302-305AD), which ravaged the entire Roman world under Emperor Diocletian.
Nicholas was said to have been present at the first Council of Nicaea, called by Emperor Constantine in 325AD. This Council, which ended the Arian controversy, affirmed the divinity of Christ, the persons of the Trinity, and produced the popular profession of faith known as the Nicene Creed, used in churches throughout the world. (Legend has it that during the Council debates, Nicholas became so upset at Arius for promoting the heresy that Jesus was less than God that he punched him in the jaw!)
Bishop Nicholas is most notably remembered for having helped the family of a nobleman who had gone bankrupt, losing everything. The ruthless creditors not only took the nobleman's property, but threatened to take his daughters as well. The father's only hope was to marry off his daughters before the creditors could take them, thereby saving them from a disgraceful life of prostitution in white slavery. The only problem was he did not have money for the girls' dowries, which were necessary for them to marry.
Bishop Nicholas heard of this dilemma and threw a bag of gold in the family's window at night to save the eldest daughter from the fate of an outcast. The news spread across town and she was soon married. Shortly thereafter, he did the same thing, rescuing the second daughter. Finally, when he threw the bag of gold in to save the third daughter, the father ran outside and caught him. Bishop Nicholas, who wanted the glory to go to God alone, made the father swear with an oath not to reveal where the gifts came from while he was living.
After serving the people faithfully all his life, Bishop Nicholas died on December 6, 343 A.D. His last words were from Psalm 11, "In the Lord I put my trust!" Stories of the life and acts of Bishop Nicholas spread throughout Turkey into Greece and the surrounding areas. Many legends arose about him, but it was the tradition of "secret gift-giving" on the anniversary of his death that became the most popular.
Though many legends have risen up over the years, let us not forget that there really was a Saint Nicholas who lived long ago and that he was a Christian man of great faith in God!
William J. Federer is author of the best-selling America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations and the searchable CD ROM reference American Quotations. A nationally known speaker on America's noble heritage, Bill is also a former candidate for U.S. Congress from Missouri. Visit Bill's Web site at www.amerisearch.net.