December 6, 2020
An Interview with St. Nicholas
Today, December 6, is the feast day of St. Nicholas, better known in this country as Santa Claus. Through the miracles of technology I have managed to secure an interview with the venerable saint, and we sat down together on Zoom to talk about his world, his life, and his legacy.
A blessed Advent to one and all.
Tell us, Saint Nicholas, where do you come from and what is your story?
I come from Myra in Asia Minor, far away to the east of Europe, and I have come across 17 centuries – a long, long journey! I was born in the seaside village of Patara in what you know as Turkey. My wealthy parents were Christians and raised me to be the same. Sadly, they died while I was young and they left me a lot of money. Obeying Jesus’s words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor”, I gave it all away to help my needy and suffering neighbors. I dedicated my life to serving God. I loved being able to help people and especially children.
I was fortunate to be able to travel as far as the Holy Land and Egypt, but I settled down in my homeland, where I was appointed as Bishop of Myra.
Was it an easy time to be a bishop?
Not at all. When I first became a bishop it was illegal to be a Christian. As a public figure I was imprisoned by edict of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before Diocletian abdicated and Constantine took over as emperor. He became a Christian and released me from prison.
At that time the church was in an uproar over the exact nature of Jesus Christ. Was he fully human, fully divine, or a bit of both? The emperor called a general council to discuss the matter and I’m ashamed to say that I got so upset that I punched another bishop in the face. His name was Arius and he was going around saying that Jesus wasn’t really divine. Well, we couldn’t have that.
One of the traditional gifts associated with you is a bag of chocolate coins. What’s the story behind that?
Times were hard in Asia Minor, and a woman couldn’t be married unless her father had a dowry to offer her husband’s family. There was a poor man who had three daughters and no way to provide dowries, so the prospects for the three girls were grim. I heard about their plight and arranged for a handful of coins to be found in the toes of the girls’ stockings as they hung by the fire to dry. That’s why children today find gold coins or golden fruit – oranges – in the toes of their Christmas stockings or, in some countries, in their shoes on my feast day. It’s also why I am the patron saint of pawnbrokers, who advertise their business with three golden balls.
Another story was about three boys – Benjamin Britten set the story to music in his St. Nicholas Cantata. It’s a gruesome tale with a happy ending. Can you share it?
Ah yes, as I said, times were hard, and some people were pretty unscrupulous. One innkeeper who didn’t want to pay for ham kidnapped and murdered three young theological students, and then he salted them down in barrels, planning to serve them up as ham. I happened to stay overnight at that inn, and as I prayed I heard the voices of the three pickled boys crying out in agony. I came down on that innkeeper like a ton of bricks, broke open the barrels, and restored the boys to life.
It’s easy to see why you are the patron saint of children, and also why you are such an unforgettable figure of history. There’s a charming custom that still survives in some parts of the church, the tradition of the Boy Bishop. On your feast day, December 6, in honor of children, a boy is selected from the congregation to be the bishop for the Christmas period. As the Magnificat is sung, at the words “He hath put down the mighty from their seat”, the Bishop steps down from his or her Cathedra. At the words “and hath exalted the humble and meek”, the chosen boy takes the bishop’s place. He dresses up in episcopal regalia and gets to bless the people of the community, until his term ends on the feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28. But you aren’t just patron saint of children, Bishop Nicholas. You mentioned pawnbrokers: who else?
Both Russia and Greece claim me as their patron, as well as charitable societies and guilds, sailors, merchants, orphans, laborers, travelers, judges, those who are unjustly imprisoned, and even murderers.
I see why all these groups claim you: your life of generosity, courage, and kindness touched all kinds of people and your image reminds us that nobody is unqualified to receive help in time of need. I have one last question for you. Can you explain why you are often depicted carrying a basket of candy canes?
The candy cane is a symbol of my bishop’s staff. The red and white stripes represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ, our Savior, the One to whom I dedicated my life.
Thank you St Nicholas for helping us understand more of your story and for reminding us that Santa Claus is an ancient and enduring icon of kindness and generosity. I think we will all think a little differently now about some of our Advent and Christmas traditions.
Let us pray.
Loving God, you called your servant Nicholas to a life of sacrifice and defense of those who could not defend themselves. Guide us to be like St Nicholas, ready to defend justice and restore hope to the hopeless.
May the candy canes and coins that we enjoy in this season
be for us a sign of your benevolent care.
Whenever we give or receive the coins,
may they remind us that all people deserve freedom and dignity.
Wherever candy canes are hung, on tree or wall or door,
may they carry with them your bright blessing.
May all who shall taste them experience your holy joy
upon their tongues and in their hearts.
We ask this in your name, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Amen; and a blessed Advent to you all.