The Real 'Saint Nick'
You'd hardly expect to find old St. Nick in jail. But St. Nicholas is more
than a children's Christmas legend. He was flesh and blood, a prisoner due to
his belief in Christ, bishop of the Mediterranean city of Myra.
What do we know about the real St. Nicholas? He was born, ancient biographers
tell us, to wealthy parents in the city of Patara about 270 A.D. He was still
young when his parents died and left him a fortune.
As a teenager, Nicholas' humility was already evident. He had heard about a
family destitute and starving. The father had no money for food, much less
the dowry needed to marry off his three daughters. He was ready to send his
oldest girl into the streets to earn a living as a prostitute.
Under the cover of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the
window of their humble dwelling. In the morning the father discovered the
gold. How he rejoiced: his family was saved, his daughter's honor preserved,
and a dowry for her marriage secured. Some time after, Nicholas secretly
provided a dowry for the second daughter. Still later for the third. But on
the third occasion, the girls' father stood
watching. As soon as the bag of gold thudded on the floor, he chased after
the lad till he caught him. Nicholas was mortified to be discovered in this
act of charity. He made the father promise not to tell anyone who had helped
his family. Then Nicholas forsook his wealth to answer a call to the
At the nearby city of Myra a bishop supervised all the churches of the
region. When the bishop died, the bishops and ministers from other cities
and villages (Nicholas among them) gathered to choose a successor.
Nicholas was in the habit of rising very early and going to the church to
pray. This morning an aged minister awaited him in the sanctuary. "Who are
you, my son?" he asked.
"Nicholas the sinner," the young minister replied. "And I am your servant."
"Come with me," the old priest directed. Nicholas followed him to a room
where the bishops had assembled. The elderly minister addressed the
gathering. "I had a vision that the first one to enter the church in the
morning should be the new bishop of Myra. Here is that man: Nicholas."
Indeed they did choose him as bishop. Nicholas was destined to lead his
congregation through the worst tribulation in history. In A.D. 303, the Roman
Emperor Diocletian ordered a brutal persecution of all Christians. Those
suspected of following the Lord were ordered to sacrifice to pagan
gods. Nicholas and thousands of others refused.
Ministers, bishops, and lay people were dragged to prison. Savage tortures
were unleashed on Christians all over the empire. Believers were fed to wild
animals. Some were forced to fight gladiators for their lives while
bloodthirsty crowds screamed for their death. Women suffered dehumanizing
torment. Saints were beaten senseless, others set aflame while still alive.
Yet persecution couldn't stamp out Christianity. Rather it spread. Third
Century leader Tertullian observed, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of
Those who survived Diocletian's torture chambers were called "saints" or
"confessors" by the people, because they didn't forsake their confession
that Jesus Christ is Lord. Nicholas was one of these. Finally, after years of
imprisonment, the iron doors swung open and Bishop Nicholas walked out, freed
by decree of the new Emperor Constantine. As he entered his city once more,
his people flocked about him. "Nicholas! Confessor!" they shouted. "Saint
Nicholas has come home."
The bishop was beaten but not broken. He served Christ's people in Myra for
another 30 years. Through the prayers of this tried and tested soldier of
faith, many found forgiveness of their sins through faith in Christ. Nicholas
participated in the famous Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. He died about 343, a
living legend, beloved by his whole city.
St. Nick of yuletide fame still carries faint reminders of this ancient man
of God. The color of his outfit recollects the red of bishop's robes. "Making
a list, checking it twice," probably recalls the old saint's lectures to
children about good behavior. Gifts secretly brought on Christmas eve bring
to mind his humble generosity to the three daughters.
Yet if he were alive today, this saint would humbly deflect attention from
himself. No fur-trimmed hat and coat, no reindeer and sleigh or North Pole
workshop. As he did in life centuries ago, Bishop Nicholas would point people
to his Master.
"I am Nicholas, a sinner," the old saint would say. "Nicholas, servant of
[ By Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, Copyright © 1985-2000 -- from Randy Walker ]
All Rights Reserved.