NIEMANN: Third-century bishop is beloved all over the world

Posted: Dec. 3, 2012 6:57 am Updated: Dec. 31, 2012 8:15 am

I usually tell the stories of Americans in this column and reveal their full names toward the end of the story. Today we stretch those rules just a bit with the story about a man named Nicholas of Myra.

He wasn't technically an American, but a lot of people think he was. He is still such a huge figure in American culture and tradition, even though he lived more than 1,700 years ago.

Nicholas was born in southern Turkey in an area known as Bari in 270 A.D. The area was then known as Asia Minor. I cannot reveal his last name, for the simple reason that people did not have last names back then. Besides, he doesn't really need one.

Nicholas's parents died when he was a young man. They were wealthy, and Nicholas inherited their wealth, but instead of spending it on himself, he dedicated his life to helping others. He became a priest, and when he became the bishop of Myra, he became known as Nicholas of Myra.

There are numerous stories of him giving away large sums of his wealth -- sometimes in the form of gold since paper money was not in use at that point in history. One example of his generosity was what he did for a poor man with three daughters.

It was common for the father of the bride to give a dowry to his daughter's future husband. This poor man could not afford to give a dowry, and as a result, his daughters would not be able to find husbands. As each daughter came of age for marriage, Nicholas would take a bag of gold and toss it in the open window of the man's house. He did this at night so that he would not be recognized.

A different version of this story suggests that the man planned to keep an eye out for Nicholas to learn who he was, but to remain anonymous, Nicholas threw the bag of gold down the chimney. One of the daughters had washed her stockings that night and hung them over the burning embers to dry, and the bag of gold had fallen into her stocking. History has not always been kept accurately, so this aspect of the story may be more legend than fact.

As a bishop, Nicholas continued to give generously, and he performed miracles as well. Despite this, he was once tortured and thrown in jail.

He died in 346 A.D. and was later canonized. Today he is known and loved in every Christian nation. Yet very little was known about the life of St. Nicholas until after 800 A.D., almost 500 years after he died. Written records of history were not kept then as they are today, with one reason being that the printing press was not invented until the mid-1400s (by Johannes Gutenberg).

Despite all the good work that St. Nicholas did, he is more well-known by his other name " of Santa Claus! But wouldn't that mean that Santa Claus was once in prison?

Yes, but it was his religious beliefs for which he was imprisoned. In fact, he was there with so many other priests and bishops that many of the real criminals were running free.

He has been known for many centuries as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers and children, and now, according to some people, pawn shops. Why pawn shops?

Because he was known for helping the poor. The three gold balls that serve as a symbol of pawn shops allegedly represent the three bags of gold that Nicholas threw in the poor man's window to help him find husbands for his daughters. But this aspect of this story may be more legend than fact as well.

Some people think that the name of Santa Claus was translated from either the name of Sint Klaes or the Dutch name of Sinterklaas. Personally, I think that the name of St. Nicholas, when spoken with a Dutch accent, is what was originally translated as Santa Claus.



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