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Saint Nicholas Tradition

KIM LAWTON: It’s the season of Santa Claus, and it seems he’s everywhere. Children anxiously await the arrival of Santa who is, of course, bearing gifts. But some Christians are worried that most of those children, and their parents as well, don’t know who “jolly old Saint Nicholas” really was.

Canon JIM ROSENTHAL (Founder, UK/USA St. Nicholas Society): St. Nicholas was a real person — not a fairy, not someone who’s flying through the sky with reindeer, but an actual person who lived and worked and died and had a full life. He had a Christian life because he was actually a bishop, a pastor.

Jim Rosenthal

LAWTON: As director of communications for the worldwide Anglican Communion, Canon Jim Rosenthal was always on the lookout for images of bishops. He says he was captivated by a fourth-century bishop named Nicholas. Now Rosenthal helps lead an international movement urging churches to reclaim Saint Nicholas.

Canon ROSENTHAL: I believe that Saint Nicholas and his tradition is something that needs to be recovered and now.

LAWTON: Rosenthal is founder of the UK/USA Saint Nicholas Society.

Canon ROSENTHAL: The children are getting these that say “I met the real and true Santa Claus and Father Christmas.”

LAWTON: Every year, he dresses up like Saint Nicholas, complete with the bishop’s staff called a crozier and his distinctive hat called a miter.

Canon ROSENTHAL: I have to decide if I wear one of those miters or this miter. This is the most pretty one.

LAWTON: He visits churches to help spread the Saint Nicholas message.

Canon ROSENTHAL: If we don’t recover this tradition, I believe that we are going to eventually lose Christmas, any semblance of a religious Christmas.

LAWTON: Nicholas was born in Asia Minor when the new Christian faith was beginning to spread across the Roman Empire.

Canon ROSENTHAL: He came from a very wealthy family. His parents died at an early age. His uncle was a priest. That was the undivided church in those days. There was no Roman Catholic Church or other kinds of churches — one church. And he became a priest like his uncle.

LAWTON: Nicholas rose to leadership in the early church and was named Bishop of Myra, a city on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. During a time of persecution by Roman Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was imprisoned for his outspoken faith. He was eventually released and continued his ministry until his death on December 6 in the year 343.

Canon ROSENTHAL: He was known for his generosity and his good will because he was very rich. He literally, by the end of his life, gave away all of his fortune. Many stories talk about the fact that he was so generous that he became known as the Gift Giver.

LAWTON: More and more churches in the US and the UK are finding ways to keep the Saint Nicholas stories alive. For example, the Episcopal Cathedral of Chicago hosted a special Saint Nicholas exhibit.

Joy Rogers

Reverend JOY ROGERS (St. James Cathedral, Chicago, IL): The stories of Saint Nicholas are wonderful stories of a bishop who cared about his people, who cared very much about the poor.

LAWTON: There are numerous tales of Nicholas doing good deeds: performing miracles, calming the seas, stopping famine and rescuing children. Separating truth from myth can be difficult.

Rev. ROGERS: My guess is that some of the fanciful stories that have moved into the realm of legend and miracle had their roots in very concrete acts of very real kindness and generosity.

LAWTON: One of the most famous stories involves a poor family who couldn’t afford marriage dowries for their three daughters.

Rev. ROGERS: The parents were going to have to sell them off into slavery or into prostitution or whatever, and Saint Nicolas came by the house at night and dropped off three bags of gold coins.

LAWTON: Some legends say he secretly tossed the bags of gold through an open window, and one landed in stockings or shoes that were drying by the fire, thus launching the tradition of the Christmas stocking. Pawnbrokers have especially embraced that story.

Canon ROSENTHAL: If you go to a pawnbroker shop you’ll see three gold balls. Those represent the three bags of gold, which we now turn into chocolate coins that Saint Nicholas threw through the window to save three girls from slavery or prostitution.

Saint Nicholas

LAWTON: Nicholas has been adopted by many groups beyond pawnbrokers.

Canon ROSENTHAL: So many people love him, and so many people wanted him as theirs that he’s the patron saint of almost everything: unwed women, children, which of course is the most prominent; pawn brokers; sailors and merchants and cookie makers, apothecaries. You just name it, and he’s got something to do with it.

LAWTON: Many European countries have a long tradition of celebrating the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas on December 6. Then Saint Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus and got all tied up with Christmas.

Canon ROSENTHAL: If you look at the name Santa Claus, you will see its “Santa” means saint, and “Claus” is simply an abbreviation from the “Nicholas.” But the reality is he became a secular image.

SANTA (reading to children): Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

LAWTON: American writers and advertisers helped disseminate a new myth that made no mention of the jolly old saint’s religious connections.

Canon ROSENTHAL: We always talk about roots and being politically correct. Let’s be politically correct about Santa Claus and give him his proper title.

LAWTON: Church leaders emphasize that Saint Nicholas’s generosity was motivated by his Christian faith. The saint was following Jesus’ commands to love others, help those who are suffering, give sacrificially, and to do one’s good deeds in secret. They say Nicholas is a reminder that Christmas is really about the coming of Jesus.

Canon ROSENTHAL: The problem with Santa Claus as it stands now is that it’s a substitute for Christmas — Santa Claus instead of the creche, instead of the manger, instead of the nativity scene. This man we would find kneeling at the nativity scene saying, “This is what I’m here to celebrate as well.”

LAWTON: Nicholas may have been called the Gift Giver, but Christians teach that on Christmas God gave the world the ultimate gift — Jesus .

Canon ROSENTHAL: Symbolically, as a Christian leader St. Nicholas is pointing, like other Advent stories, pointing towards this event called Christmas, which as Christians we believe is the most wonderful night of the year.

LAWTON: And that, they say, is the true meaning of Saint Nicholas. I’m Kim Lawton reporting.

  • Nathan Simmons

    Way to go Canon Rosenthal! My wife collects “Santas” and it’s interesting that the very first Santa was a gift from our daughter. It was Santa kneeling at the crib of the newborn Jesus.
    (Every December I go to various schools, nursing homes and senior centers hoping to spread the gift of Joy.)

  • Tammy L McCarty

    I enjoyed this artical emmensly More should be writen in the national press not just Christian news

  • Audrey

    I love St.Nicholas and I loved this story!!

  • Rev. Jim Thomas

    Good work, Jim. This is great.

  • Virginia G Gambill

    Thanks be to God for Jim Rosenthal whose knowledge and enthusiasm has resurrected the true story of St Nicholas and is working diligently to encourage the Christian community to put the real meaning back into Christmas.

  • Traci A Gray

    I am a Christian and am raising my children as such. I know that Jesus is the ultimate gift! I also feel the story of Santa Claus or St. Nicholas is a wonderful one and an example of how to live as Jesus lived. I am sure that Nicholas was just trying to live as Jesus would have wanted him to. No Santa is not in the Word of God but I see no harm in telling my children about him because they know the true Story of Christmas. God bless you.

  • Martha Hansen

    Excellent article. I’ve tried to spread this story myself when I could get a listening ear.

  • glendy maldonado

    awesome story, im reading this for a project i have to do at my church

  • Deborah Egan

    Correction of a comment by Anglican Priest….in St. Nicholas Day there was the Roman Catholic Church..established by Our Lord over 200Oyrs ago …Upon this roch(Petra who is Pter our First Pope as the apostles were given at the Last Supper where on Holy Thursday was the institution of the PriestHood to truly consecrate the bread and wine into the Body, Blood , Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ….transubstantion and they were given by Jesus …whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in Heaven ,directive to Peter …our Sacrament of Reconciliation…..St. Nichlolas was a Roman Catholic Bishop.

  • Nadim Nassar

    Congratulations Canon Rosenthal, what your doing should be the beginning of rediscovering more and more of our Christian heritage. Bringing St. Nicholas back to take his proper place is a huge step to face the aggressive atheist secularism which is making the spiritual void in the lives of the people bigger and bigger. Well done

  • Margaret Kober

    Your article left out the fact that the exhibit in Chicago is a traveling exhibit from the St. Nicholas Center in Grand Rapids, MI. The St. Nicholas Center has a wonderful website, http://www.stnicholascenter.org, with many more stories and things for children and adults.

  • Jon Williams

    This is a cause we, as Christians, have to fall behind. St Nicholas is a sign-post to the manger – a standard-bearer for what Christmas is truly about.

  • Christina Sabala

    I wish the new pastor in my church had seen this show, prior to asking the church council this year to do away with Santa Claus which had been part of the church tradition for many years. He felt that children were confused between Santa Claus and Jesus. I believe that we all should live the Christian faith. This article was a great read and informative.

  • Susan

    How sad that we as Christians continue to hold on to pagan culture and traditions. My experience as a child being raise to believe in Santa and at the same time being taught the story of Jesus in the Manger, was very confusing and took away from the truth of our Savior and the virgin birth.

  • Mr Obious

    I find it hard to believe that a site called religion & ETHICS would actually perpetuate the lies told to children about Christmas. It is nothing but a ruse by Satan to worship him.

  • ingrid smith

    Thanks for this story i am in the Netherlands Antilles a Dutch National Sint Nicolaas is celebrated on the 6 of December the shoe and carrots for his horse are put out he still comes on a boat with his horse and servants we know he is the true gift giver after the orders given to us by Christ our lord to love God first and our neighbour as ourselves

  • mengis sereke

    What a great story, beang a christian emigrant from ethiopia santa claus is a new culture to me.
    Now I will be able to tell my canadian born children about saint nicholus.
    God bless you

  • susan rivera

    I REALLY NEEDED THIS ARTICLE THIS IS HOW I KNOW AND THIS IS HOW I EXPLAINED IT TO MY 4YR OLD DAUGHTER.SOME PEOPLE SAY IM WRONG FOR IT.

  • John Victor

    Great story!!! As a person who is from the “One Church” mentioned in this piece (the Catholic Church) I am grateful that someone sees the importance of telling this story. Remarkable that it is an Anglican and not a Catholic. But frankly speaking if a Catholic pastor pushed the story of St. Nicholas I doubt it would get the air time. I have known Catholic priest who have tried to set the record straight over the years and it seems thier cause for the matter gets very little press attention.

  • Priest Gregory Bruner

    This was a nice article to watch, as my wife and I decided prior to the birth of our son to celebrate St. Nicholas as opposed to Santa Claus in our family. I was disappointed to see that the Orthodox were not represented beyond a number of (quite lovely) icons in the piece. As St. Nicholas was a priest and Bishop in a province of the Eastern Empire, he veneration among the Orthodox Christian nations is staggering. St. Nicholas is one of the most popular patrons of Orthodox Churches and individuals (that is the church or person bears the saint’s name) and, at least in the Slavic tradition, St. Nicholas comes to Church following the Liturgy on his Feast Day to visit the children and bring gifts. It is nice to see that Western Christianity and Orthodoxy are beginning to share this additional common ground.

  • Andrew Lukashonak

    Comments #19 and 9 should put aside the polemics. If one knows church history, the “one church” consisted of eastern & western halves that would eventually become divided and form the Roman Catholic west and the Orthodox east. St. Nicholas was the bishop of a Greek community in the eastern half of the empire. Very good article on a topic that needs more emphasis.

  • Mark Harrison

    I believe that what Canon Rosenthal was trying to say was that St. Nicholas lived before the Reformation or even before the Great Schism that divided Christendom. Orthodox revere him as a saint, who had been an Orthodox bishop too, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a Catholic saint and bishop, because there was no difference at the time. He lived in the fourth century, at the time of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). He is the patron saint of Russia, and of some Western European countries. There are numerous Orthodox churches in Alaska, originally established by the Russian Orthodox, dedicated to St. Nicholas. Truly, he is a saint for all Christians who would love him, ask his prayers before the Throne of God, and celebrate his holy memory. For all such people, St. Nicholas won’t detract from the Jesus Christ, but will point to Him and to the celebration of His Nativity in the flesh.

  • Lisa Pippin

    In the Orthodox Church, Saint Nicholas has always been venerated and is indeed one of the most popular of the saints. Indeed, his feast day is on December 6 and services are held (vigil the night before and liturgy the day of). God is wonderful in His saints! Christmas, of course, isn’t about Saint Nicholas, it is about Christ, but introducing children to the real Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, is introducing them to the “real” Santa Claus. He devoted his entire life to Christ and the service of His church – and cared for all of the flock given to him.

  • Carol Weaver

    Thank you so much for this post, it is very neded, and important to get this word out about St Nicholas to as many as possible and bring hope and light into the childrens eyes and yet allow them to know that this is truly a Christian St nicholas not like the one( Commercial one) they have seen for so long. . I for one did know of St Nicholas and his legend but so many do not.. Thanks to Fr Rosenthal we do have this story brought into the light

  • b-rad

    my mom told me she was saint nicholas

  • G. Arthur Kapellas

    Gentlemen: Curious to note your article about the Sainted NICHOLAS Miracle Worker and Bishop of Byzantine Myra mentions the non-existent, at the time, Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches but not the GREAT CHURCH OF CHRIST AT CONSTANTINOPLE from which the Venerable NICHOLAS was a hierarch of.