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Jolly ol' St. Nick rooted in history

Starting Nov. 22, or thereabouts, the Salvation Army bells began ringing at the entrance to every Fred Meyer between here and Seattle.

On the radio, 103.3 is playing nothing but Elvis’ favorite Christmas hits. Dozens of pastors at dozens of pulpits are reminding us what the true meaning of Christmas is every Sunday, as our kids simultaneously tug on our sleeves to ask about a Barbie, a cell phone or a new bike from Santa Claus.

There’s still time for last minute shopping trips and stocking repair before tiny tots are lying awake at night waiting to hear reindeer on the roof, time enough to pause in wonder at the story behind the laughing red suit, the man whose legend would inspire the stories of Jolly old St. Nick.

Known to Catholics as a miracle worker and the patron saint of children, orphans, travelers, judges, bankers, pawnbrokers, scholars, laborers, merchants, paupers, marriageable maidens, students sailors, captives, perfumers, victims of judicial mistakes, thieves and murderers among others, St. Nicholas is far more than the deliverer of toys on Christmas Eve.

Born in the third century, approximately 270 A.D, in Asia Minor, historians believe the man who would one day be remembered as St. Nicholas lived in what is the modern day southern coast of Turkey.

Orphaned at a young age (his parents died of a plague) he was raised by his uncle (also called Nicholas) who was then a Bishop in the early Catholic Church. Surrounded by both his family’s wealth, the business and life of the early church, and a poverty level that was endemic in his time and world, Nicholas followed in his uncle’s footsteps, and dedicated his life to the church, and his family's fortune to helping those in need.

According to legend, the young Bishop Nicholas worked hard to hide his generosity.

One legend tells of a poor man with three daughters. Unable to pay dowries or even provide for apprenticeships, his daughters would in that time have almost certainly resorted to prostitution to survive. Hearing of the families plight, Nicholas snuck to the house under the cover of darkness on the eve of the oldest daughter's coming of age, and threw a bag of gold through the window as a dowry.

The next year he did the same for the second daughter. The third year the poor man lay in wait, wanting to know who it was who had saved his family, but someone warned Nicholas, so instead of sneaking up on the window, he climbed to the roof where he threw the bag down the chimney.

The daughter, who had washed laundry that day, had her stockings hanging over the fire to dry, and the bag of gold fell into one of the open stockings, thus (legend tells us) sparking the tradition of leaving stockings for Santa Claus over the fire.

As the Bishop of Myra, Nicholas was thrown into prison under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, before being exiled for a period.

During the course of his life he is said to have calmed storms, walked the Holy Land and attended the Council of Nicaea, and abolished “pagan worship” upon his eventual return to Myra.

Upon his death on the Dec. 6, 343, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was known throughout his world as a defender of the wrongly accused, champion of the poor and as a hot-headed strong representative of the early Christian church.

Honored throughout both the Roman Catholic empire and the Orthodox Byzantine empire, the legend of St. Nicholas spread in the centuries after his death — becoming Sinterklaas in the Germanic speaking world — the legend and name that purportedly inspired New Yorkers in 1804 to claim the Saint as their own, in honor of their Dutch heritage, and thus began the process that would ensure “Santa Claus” a place in American traditions and culture.

In 1809, Washington Irving published a satirical history of New York, referencing a “Jolly St. Nicholas” which inspired an 1823 poem, "The Night Before Christmas." From there the legend only grew, jumping from Harper Collins annual illustrations to Coca-Cola corporate ads and thousands of part-time jobs every December for cheery, background checked white-bearded gentlemen in malls across America.

Underneath all the legends is a spitfire bishop, who stood just over 5 feet tall, and who in his own lifetime represented not wealth, not acquisition, but rather the idea that money was to be used to help the poor, and possessions were meant to be given to those in need.

Jolly St. Nicholas indeed.

• References include catholic.org, the St. Nicholas Center and Saint Nikolaos of Myra, Bari and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend by Charles W. Jones, published in 1978.

• Callie Vandewiele lives in Southeast Portland and writes a monthly column for the Gresham Outlook, Sandy Post and Estacada News.




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