A Visit from St. Nicholas
“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” —Matthew 2:11
So, why is a guy dressed in a monk’s habit going “Ho, Ho, Ho?” I’ll explain that in a moment, but first, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Nicholas of Myra. Not long after my death, I am quite embarrassed to have to point out, they called me a saint, so perhaps you know me best as St. Nicholas, but I am only distantly related to the Saint Nicholas Clement Moore made famous in his poem.
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.
That St. Nicholas wore a red wool suit with white fur trim, imposing black boots, and a stocking cap. I wear, as you can plainly see, a monk’s simple habit and sandals on my feet. You can’t wear black boots where I come from; it’s too hot. Mr. Moore’s St. Nicholas hails from the North Pole, but I come from southern Turkey on the coast of the sunny Mediterranean Sea. More in a moment on how St. Nicholas moved from the sunny Mediterranean to the chilly North Pole.
I was born, 275 years after Jesus my Savior, with, as you would put it today, a silver spoon in my mouth. My kind father, Epishanus, and my beautiful mother, Joanna, always told me that I was God’s belated gift to them; after years and years rocking an empty cradle, I was born when they were getting on in years, the only child God ever gave them. My mom and dad were richer than God. The blessings were not to last long, however, for both my parents died in the plague of the year 288. I was 13 years old.
My uncle, the Bishop of Myra, adopted me. The land and the money fell to me as inheritance. I never had to work a day in my life, which is not to say that I didn’t work. I lived with my uncle the bishop in the local monastery and followed him, when I was 19, into the priesthood. I loved my work; I loved caring for the sick and the lonely, the confused, and the broken-hearted. They told me when I was ordained that the most sacred things I would ever touch in my life were the bread and wine of the sacrament, the body and blood of our Lord.
But I never believed them; I always thought, you see, that the holiest things I would ever touch were my brothers and sisters in need. I had a blast my whole life spending down my inheritance by handing it off to the poor.
I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you the story of how I became a saint, but perhaps I must, because I have a point. Now, to be sure, there are all kinds of exaggerated stories of my miraculous deeds. One time on a voyage to Jerusalem the vessel I was sailing on was caught, like Jonah himself long before, in a vicious storm. When the vessel’s crew heard they had a priest on board, they begged me to pray to God to still the waves. I did, and God did. We sailed under sunny skies across calm seas all the way to Jerusalem. Thus you may know me as the patron saint of seamen, sailors, and fishermen. I don’t know about that; I’m just glad I didn’t have to go through what Jonah did to get his calm seas and sunny skies.
Sometimes when a good man dies, the good life he once led becomes larger than life and legends spring up around his true history. After a while there is nothing left of his history but fairy tales.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the evil innkeeper in my village who kidnapped three boys and killed them and packed their bodies in brine in three wooden barrels. When they asked the innkeeper the whereabouts of the missing children, he said he didn’t know anything about it, but, so the story goes, God told Father Nicholas where the boys were hidden, and when he said a prayer over them, they were miraculously restored to life. Thus in renderings of my life you may see me surrounded by three boys poking their heads out of wooden barrels, and thus did I become the patron saint of school boys and barrel-makers.
They tell the story of a great famine that fell for years across my province, and people starving to death, and boats headed for Rome laden with grain docked in the harbor of my village on the Mediterranean. When Father Nicholas begged the boats’ captains to unload 100 sacks of grain from each ship to feed the starving folk of Myra, the captains protested that if they arrived back in Rome with short cargo, the Emperor would say “Off with their heads.” Somehow Father Nicholas convinced the ship’s captains not to worry about it, and the trusting captains unloaded the grain in Myra, and when they later sailed on to arrive at Italian shores and their cargo was off-loaded for Rome, not a bag of grain was missing. Sort of like Jesus and the five loaves and two fishes, you know. Thus you may know me as the patron saint of longshoremen and bakers.
I will let you decide if those miraculous events ever happened, but I can assure you that the most famous legend they tell about Father Nicholas is absolutely true. It is the most beloved story they tell about me, and, ironically, it’s not even a miracle.
A nobleman from my village fell on hard times. He was destitute. He was bankrupt. He was broker than the Ten Commandments. When his daughters reached marriageable age, he had no money for their dowries.
Faced with no respectable future, the eldest daughter—Helen was her name—secretly planned to prostitute herself for the rest of her days in a brothel. The girls’ father was a good man, but proud and vain. I knew he would never accept gifts from his priest. What to do? You sneak out under cover of night and drop a bag of gold into the open window of the sleeping girl’s room. Next morning, no one knows where the gold comes from. Everybody thinks it’s a miracle. They come from God, these clandestine bags of gold. And they do, yes? In all our lives, the clandestine, miraculous bags of gold come straight from the hand of God.
The next night, you sneak out in the darkness once again, and drop a bag of gold into the open window of the second sleeping daughter. Another furtive bag of gold in an impoverished household. Later, the story morphs a bit, and the bags of gold are dropped not into open windows, but down the chimneys. Thus, the later St. Nicholas, he of the red suit, climbs down the chimney on Christmas Eve to deliver his gifts to good children and lumps of coal to bad.
The third night… Well, the girls’ father doesn’t believe in miracles. He begins to suspect a stealthy benefactor. The third night the father stays awake and watches outside his daughter’s bedroom, and when Father Nicholas sneaks past to drop his bag of gold into the open window, the nobleman accosts him. Father Nicholas runs off into the night, but the nobleman is a swifter runner and chases him down, and falls at his feet in gratitude.
Father Nicholas begs the nobleman to tell no one, no one, where the gold comes from. The nobleman keeps his promise. Till Father Nicholas dies, and then the truth is out. Father Nicholas becomes the patron saint of brides, spinsters, newlyweds, poor people, thieves, prostitutes, and, my favorite of all, pawnbrokers, who, of course, provide bags of gold in times of dire need. People like you probably don’t even know the symbol on every pawnbroker’s sign: three gold balls for those three bags of gold.
The trouble with telling stories of the saints’ lives is that with all those miracles, regular, everyday Christians can get a little intimidated. “I can’t calm the seas,” they say to themselves. “I can’t raise dead boys. I can’t make bags of grain materialize out of thin air.” Anything you can do seems so small and meaningless in the face of all that spectacle, and we so we decide we can’t do anything. But do you have bags of gold? From the looks of you, I would venture to guess that the answer is ‘yes.’
If the Christian Church remembers and adores St. Nicholas 1,700 years later, I hope that is why they remember and adore. There are a thousand churches in Europe named after Father Nicholas. He is cherished everywhere, especially in Greece and Russia, whose patron saint he has become, and for some reason I have never quite understood, by the Dutch, who call him Sinterklaas. On his feast day, December 6, parents, imitating the priest who dropped bags of gold into open windows, took to filling children’s stockings with little gifts, if the children were good.
And the Dutch who sailed the Atlantic and settled New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century took with them that tradition of a gift-giving St. Nicholas. When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch, turned it into New York, and replaced the Dutch language with English, they turned Sinterklaas into Santa Claus. Say “St. Nicholas” real fast and you get “Santa Claus.”: St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas.
Perhaps it was the poet Clement Moore who made St. Nicholas chubby and moved him from Turkey to the North Pole and gave him his wintry fur suit. A later Coca Cola advertisement dressed him in red with white trim and imposing black boots.
Over the years I became the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, and longshoremen, of school boys and barrel-makers, of brides, spinsters, newlyweds, prostitutes, and pawnbrokers. But every now and then, someone will call St. Nicholas “the patron saint of all those who do good by stealth.” And that is what I love the most. The Patron Saint of All Those Who Do Good by Stealth.
And maybe some Christmas, before it’s too late, you’ll start sneaking around yourself doing random acts of kindness and guerilla good deeds. You’ll spend down your inheritance till there is nothing left, and you’ll find yourself, at the end, in Bethlehem, where all Christmas-gift-giving got its start, among poor shepherds with nothing to give but a song and a prayer, and rich Magi with their gold and frankincense and myrrh. And you’ll lay down by that manger all that you have and all that you are, at the feet of the Christ Child, the greatest gift that’s ever been given.
He came to us as one unknown, under cover of night, by stealth. It was a rude stable. It was a tiny town. It was a Jewish peasant girl and her carpenter husband. Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you were. You snuck into our lives. But now we know. And we get it. We get the point.