Center for Interfaith Cooperation

Hoosiers of Many Faiths in Community

St. Nicholas, and his generosity, is an inspiration for all ages

CIC board member David Sumner contributes this piece to the Indianapolis Star, recognizing the Feast of St. Nicolaus on December 6.

St. Nicholas, and his generosity, is an inspiration for all ages: Man who morphed into Santa in U.S. culture was a bishop who lived as Jesus would want

David E. Sumner

Indianapolis Star, Sunday December 11 2017

St. Nicholas (270-343) was born in Lyca and died in Myra in an area of Greece that is now part of Turkey.

He was an only child, and his wealthy Christian parents died in an epidemic while he was young, leaving Nicholas a large inheritance. He was raised by his uncle, who was the bishop of Patara. Obeying Jesus’ words to “go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21), Nicholas later used his entire inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. He was chosen to be bishop of Myra while he was still a young man.

The best-known story about St. Nicholas tells about his giving bags of gold coins to the poor family of three young girls, which enabled the father to offer dowries to prospective husbands. Without a dowry, young women of that era were destined to be sold into prostitution and slavery. Hearing of their plight, Nicholas anonymously threw a bag of gold coins through an open window into their home on three occasions as the girls came of age, which enabled them to marry. The bags were said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before a fire to dry. His rescue led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes to await gifts from St. Nicholas.

In 325, he was one of many bishops to attend the First Council of Nicaea, where he was one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed, an official statement of Christian belief still recognized today. Sailors, many other professions and children claim Nicholas as their patron saint, because of dozens of stories of his favor, protection and intercession. St. Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports.

Nicholas is so widely revered that thousands of churches around the world were named for him, including 300 in Belgium, 34 in Rome, 33 in the Netherlands and more than 400 in England. He is commemorated in many churches on the date of his death, Dec. 6, which is the main day for gift giving and celebration throughout much of Europe.

Because of many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. His legendary habit of giving gifts in secret helped create the traditional image of Santa Claus. According to, Nicholas became the model for Santa Claus, whose name comes from the Dutch word “Sinterklaas,” a transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos.”

The popular image of Santa Claus as a jolly old man dressed in red did not develop in America until the 19th century. This image was popularized in 1823 as a result of the publication of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem by Clement Clarke Moore. More than anything else, the poem introduced the cozy, domesticated Santa tradition to America. The image was further solidified in 1931, when Coca-Cola began 35 years of Santa advertisements in magazines that established Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture. By the 1950s, Santa Claus was turning up everywhere — endorsing an amazing range of consumer products.

Many Christians would like to reclaim the original saint to help restore the spiritual dimension of this season. Indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christ wants us to live.

David E. Sumner is a writer living in Anderson and parishioner at St. George Orthodox Christian Church in Fishers.

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