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My Take: The Christmas message of the real St. Nicholas
The figure of Santa Claus is based on a fourth-century saint, the original St. Nicholas.
December 22nd, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: The Christmas message of the real St. Nicholas

Editor’s note: Adam C. English is author of "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of St. Nicholas of Myra" (Baylor University Press, 2012) and associate professor of religion at Campbell University.

By Adam C. English, Special to CNN

Four years ago, I embarked on a quest to discover the truth about Santa Claus and the original St. Nicholas. My search took me many places, sending me finally across the Atlantic to Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

The old town of Bari is a brambly, medieval maze of streets and alleyways that cross and crisscross. It is said that the city was intentionally constructed in a topsy-turvy way so that anyone trying to raid it would get swallowed and lost in its labyrinth. If you keep wandering, though, eventually you pop out onto a plaza and see the Basilica di San Nicola.

And there, in a gray tomb, lies the “real” Santa Claus. The basilica housing that tomb dates to the 11th century. You can go into the basilica and pray, rest or just gawk, but the real show lies below.

Down dark steps you will enter a candle-lit crypt, built in 1089, supported by 26 marble columns. Through a grate you will see a large marble and concrete tomb, St Nicholas’ final resting place.

Little is known for certain about the life of Nicholas, whose name means “the people’s champion.” He was born sometime after the year 260 and died sometime after 333.

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He was bishop of the church in Myra in what was then the Roman province of Lycia, Asia Minor. He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 with the other bishops of the Christian empire, where he would have seen the Emperor Constantine.

Perhaps he would have slipped into obscurity as nothing more than a minor saint originally he was a patron saint of sailors except for one unique story that circulated about him shortly after his death.

It’s such a strange and surprising tale that historians assume it must be based to a large degree on fact. It is the tale of three poor daughters.

Nicholas had been aware of a certain citizen of Patara in Lycia, modern-day Turkey who had once been an important and wealthy man of the city but who had fallen on hard times and into extreme poverty. The man grew so desperate that he lacked the very essentials of life.

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The poor man reasoned that it was impossible to marry off his three beautiful daughters because they lacked dowries for proper marriages to respectable noblemen. He feared they would each in turn be forced into prostitution to support themselves.

Nicholas heard this heartbreaking news and resolved to do something about it. He bagged a sum of gold and in the dead of night, tossed it through the man’s window. The money was used as a dowry for the first daughter.

Sometime later, Nicholas made a second nighttime visit so that the second daughter might marry. Later tradition reported that, finding the windows closed, he dropped the bag of gold down the chimney, where it landed into one of the girl’s stockings that was hanging to dry.

When Nicholas returned to deliver anonymously the third bag of gold for the last daughter, the curious father was ready. When he heard a bag hit the floor, the father leapt to his feet and raced outside, where he caught the mysterious benefactor.

Nicholas revealed his identity to the father but made him swear never to tell anyone what he’d done. He did not want praise or recognition for his generosity.

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More impressive than its connection with modern-day Santa Claus traditions is the tale’s historical uniqueness. The vast majority of saint stories that circulated in the early church involved extraordinary miracles and healings or dramatic martyrdoms and confessions of Christ.

They involved monks who went into the desert and experienced the tempting of the devil and the burning of the sun, mothers who’d had their entrails spilled onto the Colosseum floor for Christ, mystics who saw the heavens open in their visions.

But the Nicholas story was about a regular family facing a familiar crisis to which ordinary people could relate. Those in the pews had never heard anything like it.

When medieval Christians looked at the great church frescoes, basilica mosaics and cathedral stained glass pictures of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, the apostles and saints of old, there was little to distinguish one saint from another.

But St. Nicholas was easy to spot. He was always pictured carrying three bags of gold. The story of his helping the three sisters jumped off the dry page of history and into the minds and imaginations of young girls and boys and adults.

Indeed, Nicholas would become the most popular nonbiblical saint in the pre-modern church. More churches would be dedicated to him than to any other person except Mary, the mother of Jesus. The first medieval drama that was not intended as a worship ritual and that was written in the vernacular was about Nicholas.

No wonder, then, that sailors from Bari wanted his bones. In the 1080s, Seljuk Turks invaded Lycia and Asia Minor (what is now Turkey). It seemed only a matter of time before they would plunder the tomb of St. Nicholas.

The Barians resolved that his bones be moved, or “translated,” to use the expression of the day. Under the nose of the Turkish overlords in control of the area 47 Barian sailors disembarked at Myra disguised as pilgrims.

They quietly made their way to the church of St. Nicholas, hiding swords and shovels under their clothes. As soon as they entered the church, they barred the doors, smashed the marble cover and looked inside.

They found more than they had bargained for: Nicholas’ bones were floating in a sweet-smelling liquid like oil or water. Known as the myrrh or manna of St. Nicholas, the liquid was highly valued for its purported miraculous and therapeutic qualities.

The bones were taken back to Italy and a basilica was erected in Bari to house them. To this day, Nicholas’ tomb continues to excrete a small amount of watery liquid.

Every year on May 9, one of the Dominican friars charged with the upkeep and care of the Basilica di San Nicola squats down in front of a small opening in the tomb and slowly collects a vile of the myrrh of St. Nicholas. It is then diluted in holy water and bottled for pilgrims and visitors.

So there is a lot more to the story of St. Nick than meets the eye. His bold initiative to help three poor girls in need sparked a tradition of gift-giving that has carried into modern times. The magical Christmas Eve visits from Santa Claus represent the vestige of this old story. Instead of fixating on the commercialization and greed that plague the modern Santa Claus, I chose to see in it the lasting power of a simple act of kindness.

More than a footnote to the legend of Santa Claus, Nicholas is a model of Christian kindness, an inspiration for charity and a saint to be remembered. He challenges us at this time of year to give not only to those we know and love, but also to those we do not know and especially to those who find themselves in need.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Adam C. English.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Christmas • Opinion

soundoff (465 Responses)
  1. Science

    Free speech helps educate the masses................POLITICIANS too !

    Where do morals come from?

    By Kelly Murray, CNN

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/12/where-do-morals-come-from/#comments

    Gravity is not up for debate !

    BY the way ...................Splat goes a fairy in the sky !...............bye bye tinker bell !

    Einstein's Gravity Theory Passes Toughest Test Yet..............................E = mc2..........(U–Pb).................two math formulas.

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    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130425142250.htm

    Hey James Madison................religion has none it looks like.............with the comments on this blog.

    The Big question is ETHICS ! does religion have any ?

    The Ethics of Resurrecting Extinct Species

    Apr. 8, 2013 — At some point, scientists may be able to bring back extinct animals, and perhaps early humans, raising questions of ethics and environmental disruption.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130408165955.htm

    April 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |

    May 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |

    Dinosaur Egg Study Supports Evolutionary Link Between Birds and Dinosaurs: How Troodon Likely Hatched Its Young

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130418104324.htm

    And NO ANGELS the pope KICKED them OFF the TEAM last year !

    From Soup to Cells—the Origin of Life

    http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/IIE2aOriginoflife.shtml

    the wrong path is Adam and Eve !

    Human Y Chromosome Much Older Than Previously Thought

    Mar. 4, 2013 — The discovery and analysis of an extremely rare African American Y chromosome pushes back the time of the most recent common ancestor for the Y chromosome lineage tree to 338,000 years ago. This time predates the age of the oldest known anatomically modern human fossils.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130305145821.htm

    No god(s) needed or required to graduate from public schools in the US

    Remember : Adam had to POKE himself hard with his OWN BONE to create Eve.

    No god(s) needed................... Old. DNA works..................also catches crooks !

    Ancient DNA Reveals Europe's Dynamic Genetic History

    Apr. 23, 2013 — Ancient DNA recovered from a series of skeletons in central Germany up to 7,500 years old has been used to reconstruct the first detailed genetic history of modern Europe.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130423134037.htm

    Ca-nabis and Cannabinoids (PDQ®) – National Cancer Insti-tute

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    Mar 21, 2013 – [1,2] These plant-derived compounds may be referred to as phytocannabinoids. ... have a protective effect against the development of certain types of tumors. ... In lung cancer cell lines, CBD upregulated ICAM-1, leading to ...

    Good stuff !

    The fact...............the earth is to old for this nonsemse ! Time to EVOLVE !

    Ancient Earth Crust Stored in Deep Mantle

    Apr. 24, 2013 — Scientists have long believed that lava erupted from certain oceanic volcanoes contains materials from the early Earth's crust. But decisive evidence for this phenomenon has proven elusive. New research from a team including Carnegie's Erik Hauri demonstrates that oceanic volcanic rocks contain samples of recycled crust dating back to the Archean era 2.5 billion years ago. Their work is published in Nature.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130424132705.htm

    For what...................... ? Make sure to read what the pope said !

    Where do morals come from?

    By Kelly Murray, CNN

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/

    Learning is fun with facts.......................... and facts work when teaching children.

    Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

    Professor Peter Higgs said recently that there is no God and so people should stop referring to the theoretical partial that
    bears his name as the “God particle.”

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/04/08/atheist-prof-peter-higgs-stop-calling-higgs-bosen-the-god-particle/

    Pope praises science, but insists God created world updated Thur October 28, 2010
    Stephen Hawking is wrong, Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday – God did create the universe. The pope didn't actually mention the world-famous scientist, who argues in a book published last month that the laws of physics show there is no need for a supreme... \

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/28/pope-praises-science-but-insists-god-created-world/

    Science

    Heaven is 'a fairy story,' scientist Stephen Hawking says updated Tue May 17, 2011
    By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor The concept of heaven or any kind of afterlife is a "fairy story," famed British scientist Stephen Hawking said in a newspaper interview this week. "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when...

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/17/heaven-is-a-fairy-story-scientist-stephen-hawking-says/

    April 7th, 2012

    08:32 PM ET

    The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth

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    Make sure to read comments

    April 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |

    Breaking News

    NASA: Three planets found are some of best candidates so far for habitable worlds outside our solar system.

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    Star Dust we are

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWdU_px9ApE&w=640&h=390]

    Peace

    May 3, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
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    February 1, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
  3. aprilday1

    Reblogged this on Rosemary Blog.

    December 31, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  4. IdaJean

    People should not wait for christmas, to be loving and giving.

    December 28, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  5. Universe

    God in Quran says, (holy Islamic scripture)

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    ‘They said, "You have to be Jewish or Christian, to be guided." Say, "We follow the religion of Abraham – monotheism – he never was an idol worshiper." [2:135]

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    The Messiah, son of Mary is no more than a messenger like the messengers before him, and his mother was a saint. Both of them used to eat the food. Note how we explain the revelations for them, and note how they still deviate! [5:75]

    It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is. [19:35]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    O people, here is a parable that you must ponder carefully: the idols you set up beside God can never create a fly, even if they banded together to do so. Furthermore, if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it; weak is the pursuer and the pursued. [22:73]

    They do not value God as He should be valued. God is the Most Powerful, the Almighty.[22:74]

    If you obey the majority of people on earth, they will divert you from the path of God. They follow only conjecture; they only guess. [Quran 6:116]

    “There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinct from the wrong way. Anyone who denounces the devil and believes in God has grasped the strongest bond; one that never breaks. God is Hearer, Omniscient.” [2:256]

    “God: there is no other god besides Him, the Living, the Eternal. Never a moment of unawareness or slumber overtakes Him. To Him belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. Who could intercede with Him, except in accordance with His will? He knows their past, and their future. No one attains any knowledge, except as He wills. His dominion encompasses the heavens and the earth, and ruling them never burdens Him. He is the Most High, the Great.” [2:255]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  6. Sam Yaza

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2Wzao_2PSI&w=640&h=390]

    this is who ruined Christmas

    i didn't know he was American i thought he was German

    December 27, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  7. Peter

    How the Christians eventually stopped the Roman persecution they suffered and this included Saint Nicholas who was jailed for awhile, was there were so many Christians willing to die instead of renouncing Jesus and they prayed for their executioners as they were walking to their death, the Romans eventually realized nothing fake or superficial can lead men do this.

    December 26, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • Avid belief blog reader

      Don't give them any ideas.

      December 26, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  8. Claire Duffy

    This is very interesting, thank you.The St Nicholas story is the subject of a Benjamin Britten choral piece – otherwise it's barely known any more, thanks to “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore, who transformed the character completely. Glad to have this detail! More here: http://wp.me/p2k3hy-KH

    December 25, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  9. RickV

    Dear Atheist, If you are trying to change the mind of someone who has encounterred the risen Christ, you might just as well push a rope. When you know, you know, and many have died before ever denying Him. Someone in this world dies every day for being a Christian, including today.

    December 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Akira

      Someone dies everyday, by mere virtue of being alive in the first place.

      December 25, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • tallulah13

      And many believers have become atheists, simply by realizing that there is no rational reason to believe in any god.

      December 25, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • An old saying

      A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.

      December 26, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.