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The Real Saint Nick

The Real Saint Nick

A certain man living in the time of the Roman Empire had three daughters, but according to legend, they were penniless and their future looked bleak. To marry, a young woman was expected to have a dowry—money that is given to the groom. But these three young women were broke and hungry.

A young man from a wealthy family heard about the poor sisters, but he didn’t want to just hand them money because he feared it would hurt the father’s pride. So the young man snuck out at night, crept up to the window of their modest house, and tossed three bags of money through the window—one sack for each daughter.

That generous man, according to the story, was Saint Nicholas.

In a variation of the story, Nicholas tossed the money through the window on three straight nights. And in yet another version, Nicholas found the window locked, so he tossed the three bags down the chimney. One of the daughters had washed her stockings that very night and hung them over the fireplace embers to dry. As a result, when Nicholas dropped the bags down the chimney, they landed in the stockings.

Sound familiar?

As we celebrate Christmas and see Santa Clauses galore in malls, on television, and in parades, it’s good to know where this fanciful figure came from. There was a real-life Saint Nicholas, but we don’t know much about him that we can say with historical certainty. In fact, some say the only thing we know for sure is that he was probably a bishop of Myra (in Turkey today), and that he was born in the late third century and died in the early fourth century.

It is believed that Nicholas was born in Patara, which was located in a part of the Roman Empire known as Lycia (again, today’s Turkey). When his wealthy parents died, he inherited a load of money, and he eventually gave it all away.

Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, but he was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperors, Diocletian and Maximian. Diocletian was an emperor who dressed in golden robes and commanded people to call him “Lord and God.” During his reign, churches were destroyed or vandalized, and Christian leaders, such as Nicholas, were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed.

These Christian leaders—at least the ones who lived—were released when Constantine became the emperor of Rome after a decisive battle at Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D.

After the Roman persecution, the next major threat that Nicholas faced was the heresy known as Arianism. This belief system, created by a man named Arius, claimed that Jesus was not really God the Son. Nicholas fought against this belief, and one story even has him traveling to the Council of Nicea and slapping Arius in the face with his sandal!

Many other stories abound about Nicholas, such as one in which he resurrected several murdered children and another in which he stilled a storm that threatened to sink his ship.

But how did we get from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus?

For that, we can thank the Dutch. Nicholas went by different names in different countries, and in Holland he was called Sinterklass. When the Dutch traveled to America, Sinterklass became Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas has been associated with gift giving because of the story of the three daughters, but for other reasons as well. In medieval times, nuns would secretly leave baskets of food and clothes on the doorsteps of poor families on December 6—the feast day for Saint Nicholas. In addition, sailors would celebrate Nicholas’s special day by buying gifts for loved ones.

We will probably never know the complete story of Nicholas until we meet him in Heaven. But we do know that the stories of Nicholas have inspired millions of people across the world to give joyfully. The Bible is loaded with verses about giving, but one that I think best reflects Nicholas’s life is Matthew 6:2-4, where Jesus says:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

It also says in 2 Corinthians 9:7, Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Give cheerfully and do not give to be praised by others. You can’t do better than to follow these two simple rules. And if you want to let loose with a “Ho, ho, ho!” when you make someone’s day, be my guest.

Merry Christmas!

History by the Slice Family Activity

Read Matthew 6:2-4 and 2 Corinthians 9:7. Then discuss these questions.

1. What was one of the best gifts that you ever gave to someone?

2. If you could give a gift in secret to someone, who would it be? What would the gift be?

3. Can you think of a needy family or individual who could use something special at Christmas?

4. Do you finding giving gifts a joy? If so, what makes it a joy?

5. Why does Jesus ask us to give cheerfully? Is it for our sake or the other person’s sake? Explain.

6. What does Jesus mean when He asks us not to give “under compulsion”?

7. What is one of the greatest gifts you ever received? What made it so special?

By: Doug Peterson has written 42 books for VeggieTales and is the author of four historical novels: The Disappearing Man, The Puzzle People, The Vanishing Woman, and The Lincoln League. Visit him at

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