Monday, December 22, 2008

St. Nick

Santa Claus as we know him is a fictitious character who has nothing to do with the holiday we celebrate on December 25th. But his historical antecedent, St. Nicholas of Myra (died Dec. 6, 345 or 352)—I’ll just call him Nick—is one of the inspiring heroes of the early Christian past. Nick lived in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey (just ask me if I’ve been there), and he’s the patron saint, meaning spiritual protector, for some of the most unsavory people: sailors, fishermen, pawnbrokers, and prostitutes. (There are some neat stories about another famous guy who hung out with fishermen and prostitutes, but I’ll save his story for another time.)

In one popular story about Nick, he fished a sailor out of a stormy sea, saving his life. In another he punched a heretical preacher in the nose for teaching heresy about Jesus at the Council of Nicea in AD 325. And then there’s the famous story about his generosity. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a poor man who had three daughters. He didn’t have enough money for a dowry, which meant the girls would not be able to marry and likely wind up prostitutes. Nick knew that the penurious man was too proud to accept charity, so he tied up gold coins in a sack and threw it in the man’s window just before the oldest daughter reached marriageable age—in the nick of time, you might say. (Sorry about that.) The next night he did the same for the second daughter. The father, determined to learn the identity of his wealthy patron, decided to lay in wait the third night to catch the man as he strolled by to toss in a bag for his youngest daughter. But Nick outsmarted him. He threw the last bag of gold down the chimney instead. It happened to land in a stocking the daughter was drying on the hearth. To this day the symbol of pawnbrokers is three gold balls, symbolizing Nick’s three sacks of gold. (I’m tempted to say, “And now you know the rest of the story,” but I’ll refrain.)

You may doubt the veracity of these stories. Most scholars do too. It sounds like a bunch of holy hooey, right? Well, maybe. But if you find these legends hard to believe, have you heard the one about the virgin who gave birth to God?

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