By Jeff Westover
Santa Claus is real. And this is his true story.
Born nearly 2000 years ago, not too long after the days that Jesus Christ walked the earth, Nicholas was born to wealthy parents in a tiny village in the country we today call Turkey.
Though Nicholas was a child of privilege, he was raised a Christian and at a very young age was devoted to the faith.
Nicholas' parents died while he was yet a boy. And not knowing what to do with himself or the fortune he inherited, he turned to his Bible and read the words of admonishment that Christ gave to a wealthy man: "Sell all thou hath and give it to the poor and follow me".
Nicholas went to his village priest, confessed his sins and expressed the desires of his heart. He wished to become a priest.
Because he was an orphan, the priest took him in. And soon he found that Nicholas was no ordinary boy. Legend tells the story of a young Nicholas visiting the Holy Land with his village priest. On the return voyage, over stormy waters, their ship was cast about and all aboard feared for their lives. Nicholas steadfastly prayed for the safety of the passengers and crew. His faith astonished those with him as the storm passed and the waters calmed.
The village priest was fond of Nicholas. But he knew Nicholas lacked the education and the credentials necessary to become a priest. He would need a miracle if it was to happen. And a miracle is just what he got.
In the not too distant city of Myra, the Bishop of the church passed away. As the authorities of the church assembled to consider his replacement, Nicholas was there. The man considered wisest amongst the authorities had a dream and was visited by a heavenly messenger. He inquired of the angel "Who should the new Bishop be?". The angel said that if the gathered authorities would just wait by the door of the church they should select the first person named Nicholas to walk through the doors. The church authorities had their answer, and Nicholas had his miracle and was named the youngest bishop of the church ever on record.
As a young Bishop, Nicholas was fearless in his defense of the faith. He became known as an outspoken caretaker of the people of his flock and as one very close to God, due to his faith. When the citizens of Myra came to him to complain of a difficult tax burden, he approached the Emperor for relief. Constantine, who was not Christian and who had previously cast Nicholas into prison for his vigorous public defense of Christianity, wrote a decree lowering the tax due to Bishop Nicholas' pleas on behalf of the people.
Bishop Nicholas took the written decree and cast it upon the waters towards the city of Myra. Sometime later, the finance ministers from Rome met with Constantine to change his mind about the tax. Constantine called Nicholas before him and asked for the written decree back. When Nicholas declared that he had cast the decree upon the water and that the change to the law had already taken affect, Constantine did not believe him. He sent a runner to Myra who returned a few days later to confirm that all Nicholas had said was true.
Nicholas was beloved of the people of Myra for his kindness especially to children. One such deed became a legend that has survived for centuries and is celebrated even now in a variety of cultures. In his town where he was Bishop, Nicholas once gave an anonymous gift to a man with three daughters. The family was destitute of means. The custom of the time was that each daughter would need to be provided with a dowry in order to marry. Because they were poor, the father of the three daughters was contemplating selling his children into slavery.
Nicholas heard of their plight and on a dark night soon after the eldest daughter came to marrying age, he tossed a small bag of gold through an open window (and some say he tossed it down the chimney), sparing her a life of misery.
As the second daughter came of age he repeated the deed, again doing so anonymously.
As the third daughter came of age the father waited up nights to catch the gift-giver in order to express his gratitude. His persistence paid off as he caught Bishop Nicholas in the act.
This story is recounted in many lands, although some of the details change from one telling to another. Some say it was not bags of gold but rather balls of gold that Nicholas left. Some say he tossed them into the chimney where they landed in the hanging stockings or the drying shoes of the unmarried girls. That is why some, to remember this event,celebrate Christmas was an orange in the toe of a stocking.
Nicholas was known for many such deeds. Miracles were attributed to the Bishop of Myra because of his great faith.
Some were individual stories, like the man with three daughters. Others were stories of Bishop Nicholas acting on behalf of all the people. One very famous story had to do with a terrible season of famine in Myra. The drought was so bad the people there were starting to go hungry.
Bishop Nicholas approached the captains of the ships ported in Myra, for he knew the ships contained grain destined for faraway places. But the captains were reluctant to help. They were paid for full cargos and they explained to Bishop Nicholas that they had to deliver them as they received them. Nicholas promised them that if they would share but a small part from each ship, the credit they required for full delivery would be granted them. They agreed, and Nicholas took the food to the people and fed them for two years with it, even having enough left over to plant for seed when the famine passed.
But when the ships took to sea and arrived at their destinations, the captains of the ships found their holds full upon arrival and declared the event a miracle. This caused the reputation of Nicholas to spread. He became, over time, the patron saint of children, of sailors, of the unmarried, and of innocents wrongly accused or persecuted.
So famous did Nicholas become that no other name in the church, save Jesus and the Virgin Mary only, was so widely known or respected. More than 2000 churches in the Old World bore the name of Saint Nicholas. And his legend only grew as the centuries passed.
This is just the beginning of the story of Santa Claus. The genesis of the man we anticipate each Christmas came from the good Bishop of Myra -- a man in red robes, a man with a long beard, and a man known for anonymous giving -- especially to children.