On Saturday, I was given a Christmas quiz to complete. (Yes, Saturday. The day before Advent had even begun, but let that pass.) One of the questions was
Where did the original Saint Nicholas come from?
As the former vicar of a church dedicated to St Nicholas, I was fairly confident that the answer was, as is often the case in early church history, “In what is now Turkey”. Nicholas turns up on Christmas quizzes because his name is where we get ‘Santa Claus’ from, of course. (In my previous parish, we had to get ‘Santa’ to fill in a child protection registration in order to appear at our Christmas fair. Not the real, Santa, you understand, he was too busy, but a stand-in. Employer: St Nicholas’. Job applied for: Saint Nicholas.)
The real Saint Nicholas was the bishop of a place called Myra (in what is now Turkey). He was born to wealthy parents but orphaned as a teenager. In the year 303 CE, the Roman emperor Diocletian passed laws making it compulsory to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Those who refused were imprisoned and could be executed. Nicholas was imprisoned but released when Constantine became emperor in 306.
It is said that Nicholas attend the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine in 325. He was a fierce defender of orthodox trinitarian Christian faith. So much so, that there is a story that he slapped the heretic Arius. Well done, Santa! Despite that:
“He is reported to have been a kind and generous man, with a great love of justice, and to have intervened on a number of occasions to save people who had been unjustly condemned.”
The Saints of the Anglican Calendar, Kathleen Jones, Canterbury Press, 2000
He died in Myra and was buried in the cathedral but his remains were whisked away in the eleventh century CE to Bari in Italy. Some say his relics were stolen but it’s alright because Saint Nicholas himself appeared in a vision to tell them that he needed to be taken away before the Muslim Turks invaded.
The first biography of Nicholas was written 200 years after his death and many of the stories associated with him come from an account written in the thirteenth century.
The best known of them involved the saint saving three girls, whose poor father could provide no dowry in order for them to marry, from a fate worse than death by lobbing bags of gold into their home. This is supposed to be the origin of the pawnbroker’s sign – three gold balls – and is associated with the idea of giving gifts. He is also supposed to have rescued three boys who had been butchered in order to be sold as ham by a wicked butcher. Restoring boys to life who have been butchered and salted for ham is an interesting idea: first they were cured then they were healed.
In St Nicholas’ Church, Halewood, there is a set of three windows behind the altar with Saint Nicholas flanked by couple of angels. (The windows are by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.) Nicholas is depicted holding a baby and visitors assume that the child is Jesus but I don’t think it is. I think it is just a child being held to show the saint’s love of children. If I were talking to a group of children visiting the church, as they did from our own and other primary schools, I would point out that, in our church, there was a child in the centre. In the same way Jesus put a child at the centre when he said
‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (Luke 18:16)
As churches we are struggling to get children and young people to be a part of our family. (To be honest, we are struggling to get the parents of children, even grandparents.) But we have the legend of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, and the example of Jesus who welcomed the little children, to help set our agenda.
Without children in the church, we are missing out. Jesus says
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18:17)