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Although Nicholas of Myra, a.k.a. St. Nicholas, is one of the most popular saints in the history of the Church, there is next to no historically verifiable evidence regarding his life! Celebration of his life goes back to at least the 6th century when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (483–565) dedicated a church to him and St. Priscus in Constantinople. He is reputed to have been born in Patara, a city in the area of Lycia in what is now south-western Turkey, and eventually became the bishop of Myra, also in Lycia. During the final great persecution from 303–311 in the Roman Empire under the emperor Diocletian (c.244–312), Nicholas may well have been imprisoned for his Christian Faith, and, if this is true, he is technically a “confessor.” In the terminology of the Ancient Church, whereas a martyr gave his life for Christ, a confessor suffered imprisonment and possibly torture for his faith, but was not actually killed.

When the Arian controversy over the deity of the Lord Jesus flared up in the late 310s and 320s, there is an account that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in the summer of 325 that sought to resolve this controversy. Apparently he was so upset with the way that Arius’ teaching degraded the Lord Jesus into a glorified creature that he gave Arius a sharp box on one of his ears with his fist! Yet, his name does not appear in any of the oldest lists of bishops that attended this council.

He died somewhere between 345 and 352, and was buried in Myra. In May of 1087, his body was stolen by Italian merchants and take to the Italian city of Bari, where it lies today in the church of San Nicola. This is the reason he is sometimes called Nicholas of Bari. In recent years, Turkish authorities have demanded the return of Nicholas’ remains to Turkey. Interestingly, a forensic study on the remains of Nicholas in Bari conducted in 2005 discovered that the skeleton was about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and had a broken nose.

This transference of his physical remains to Bari helped stimulate the spread of his popularity, so that, in time, he became the patron saint of a number of countries and cities, such as Russia and Freiburg in Switzerland, and the island of Corfu, as well as the patron saints of sailors and merchants (both of them travelers) and children. In early 20th-century England alone, there were some 376 churches dedicated to him. For instance, in Chawton, Hampshire, Jane Austen’s father ministered at St Nicholas Church. It was in Germany and the Netherlands that Nicholas as the patron saint of children led to the idea that he gave gifts secretly to children on December 6, his feast-day. And it was from this belief that the present-day idea of Santa Claus ultimately developed.

As you can see, it has been a long and convoluted journey from the zealous 4th-century boxer for Christ’s deity to the kindly red-suited, white-bearded gent whom circumnavigates the globe in a single eve to give gifts to kids of every land and tongue!