AUZENNE: Beyond The Red Suit - Meet St. Nicholas

November 22, 2022

A man dressed as St. Nicholas greets parishioners during a pancake breakfast at St.Thomas More Parish in Chicago in 2019. The feast of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop from the region of modern-day Turkey, who was well known for his generosity, is celebrated Dec. 6. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

On Dec. 6, we celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. From this saint, we get the legend of Santa Claus, the jolly old man who flies around in a magical sleigh. This is a beautiful story of magic and wonder that many of us grew up with and that we now share with our own children and grandchildren.

But what if the story of the actual St. Nicholas were even more beautiful?

St. Nicholas was a bishop of the early Church; born in about 270 AD in the port city of Myrna (modern Turkey) and raised in a Christian family. He was orphaned at a young age when his parents died unexpectedly in an epidemic. Grief-stricken, Nicholas gave his entire inheritance to the poor and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He returned to Myrna after a profound conversion and was named bishop.

As bishop, Nicholas was soon caught up in a wave of Christian persecution sweeping through the Roman empire. Arrested, exiled and imprisoned for months, he saw many of his fellow believers martyred for their faith in Christ.

Eventually, Christianity was legalized under Emperor Constantine, the same Constantine who called the Council of Nicea in 325 AD to settle an argument among Church leaders. Led by a priest named Arius, some bishops had been teaching that Jesus was not equal to God the Father but was created by the Father. Nicholas and his supporters argued that Jesus was fully human and fully divine — otherwise, how could He forgive sin?

The argument went back and forth for many weeks; at one point, Nicholas became so incensed by Arius’s false teaching that he slapped him! (There is a famous icon depicting this moment.) At the end of the council, Nicholas and his supporters won the day. It is easy to understand how Nicholas, having seen so many martyrs, would be passionate in defending the truth they died for. But he was equally passionate in his commitment to the poor and the marginalized.

Bishop Nicholas made sure that the church at Myrna cared for the sick, the widows and the orphans. In a famous story, he saved three impoverished sisters from a life of prostitution when he provided for their dowry, allowing them to be married with dignity into honorable families.

It is a shame that the true St. Nicholas has all but disappeared beneath the red and white suit of Santa Claus. But for those who are willing to look closer, we find that Nicholas is a saint for our own time.

Like Nicholas, we are confronted by false teachings that seek to rob Jesus of His power and divinity. Like him, we are called to reject the narrative that tells us that the reward for goodness is comfort and wealth. By following his example, we can stand for Christ and give joyfully to people in need — not because it is Christmas, but because we are Christians.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with Santa Claus. Children certainly deserve all the wonder and innocence we can offer them in these cynical times. But a magical elf who brings presents is not enough to help our children grow in holiness. For that, we need a holy saint who can inspire them to seek God’s presence. Nicholas of Myrna is such a saint.

St. Nicholas, pray for us! 

Amy Auzenne is the director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.