St. Nicholas was born in 270 A.D. in the city of Patara in Lycia (modern day Turkey). His parents died when he was a young man, leaving him a substantial inheritance, which he determined to devote to works of charity.
Not long thereafter, Nicholas learned of a man in Patara who, because of his poverty, could neither support his three daughters nor find husbands for them. As a result, this man was considering giving his daughters over to prostitution.
When Nicholas heard of this, under cover of darkness, he went to the man’s house with a bag of gold, which he threw into an open window. Nicholas then slipped away undetected. Now having a dowry, the oldest daughter was soon married. Thereafter, Nicholas repeated his charitable act for the other two daughters, who also married.
Nicholas lived at one of the most fascinating times in the history of the Church. He eventually became bishop of Myra, and holding such position during the severe persecution perpetrated by Roman Emperor Diocletian, was arrested, tortured and thrown into prison. But Nicholas gave a good confession, refusing to renounce Christ even under torture and threat of death.
On October 27, 312, the Roman emperor Constantine had his vision at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and became a Christian. Constantine then released from prison Christians who had been arrested for their faith, had confiscated property returned to Christians and churches and began encouraging the growth of Christianity throughout the empire. Nicholas had a front row seat to witness this magnificent reversal of fortune and the triumph of Christianity over paganism in the Roman Empire. Tradition says Nicholas was also present at the Council of Nicea in 325, where Constantine presided to resolve the Ariansim heresy constroversy.
Nicholas died in 346 A.D. in the city of Myra, where he had served as bishop.
Other cultures and naked commercialism have morphed St. Nicholas into the corpulent, red-suited, reindeer chasing, chimney-trespassing character we see today. But as you can see, the real St. Nicholas was no cartoon character. He was a courageous, charitable, Christ-follower who gave to others and even under torture and threat of death refused to renounce the Savior whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, all of which makes him an appropriate icon for Christmas. GS