You’d hardly expect to find old St. Nicholas in a prison. But St. Nicholas is more than a children’s Christmas legend. Indeed, he was real flesh and blood, a persecuted prisoner for Christ, the bishop of the Mediterranean city of Myra.
Who Was the Real St. Nicholas?
Ancient biographers tell us he was born to wealthy parents in the city of Patara, Lycia in Asia Minor (now Turkey) about 270 A.D. He was still young when his parents died and left him a fortune.
Nicholas was perhaps in his 20s when the story occurs that made him a legend. He had heard about a family destitute and starving. The father had no money for food, much less the dowry needed to marry off his three daughters. He was just about ready to send his oldest girl into the streets to earn a living as a prostitute.
Under the cover of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the window of their humble dwelling. In the morning the father discovered the gold. How he rejoiced: his family was saved, his daughter’s honor preserved, and a dowry for her marriage secured. Some time after, Nicholas secretly provided a dowry for the second daughter. Still later for the third.
But on the third occasion, the girls’ father stood watching. As soon as the bag of gold thudded on the floor, he chased after the lad till he caught him. Nicholas was mortified to be discovered in this act of charity. He made the father promise not to tell anyone who had helped his family.
Soon after, Nicholas turned his back on his wealth to answer a call to the ministry. (source)
At the nearby city of Myra a bishop supervised all the churches of the region. When the bishop died, the bishops and ministers from other cities and villages — Nicholas among them — gathered to choose a successor.
Nicholas was in the habit of rising very early and going to the church to pray. This morning an aged minister awaited him in the sanctuary. “Who are you, my son?” he asked.
“Nicholas the sinner,” the young minister replied. “And I am your servant.”
“Come with me,” the old priest directed. Nicholas followed him to a room where the bishops had assembled. The elderly minister addressed the gathering. “I had a vision that the first one to enter the church in the morning should be the new bishop of Myra. Here is that man: Nicholas.”
Indeed they did choose him as bishop. He was destined to lead his congregation through one of the worst tribulations in history at that time. In A.D. 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a savage persecution of all Christians.
“A vast multitude was imprisoned in every place,” wrote an eyewitness. “The prisons which had been prepared for murderers and robbers, were filled with bishops, priests, and deacons so there was no longer room for those condemned of crimes.” Those suspected of following the Lord were ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods. Nicholas and thousands of others refused.
Brutal tortures were unleashed on Christians all over the empire. Lay people, ministers, bishops, and bishops were dragged to prison. Some were forced to fight gladiators for their lives while bloodthirsty crowds screamed for their death. Women suffered dehumanizing torment. Believers were fed to wild animals. Saints were set aflame still alive, while others were beaten senseless.
Blood Of the Martyrs
The vicious persecution of the faithful believers couldn’t stamp out Christianity. Rather it spread wildly. Third Century leader Tertullian observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Those who survived Diocletian’s torture chambers were called “saints” or “confessors” by the people, because they didn’t forsake their confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. Nicholas was one of these.
Finally, after years of imprisonment, freed by decree of the new Emperor Constantine, the iron gates of the prison swung open and he walked out. As he entered his city once more, his people flocked about him. “Confessor! Nicholas!” they shouted. “Saint Nicholas has come home.”
The bishop was persecuted, but he was not broken. He served Christ’s people in Myra for another thirty years. Through the prayers of this tried and tested soldier of faith, many found salvation and healing. Nicholas participated in the famous Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. He died on December 6, about 343, a living legend, beloved by his whole city.
A fascinating article in National Geographic agrees: Archaeological investigation of his bodily remains show that he suffered beatings and had a badly broken nose under the Emperor Diocletian. (source)
The St. Nick we think of at Christmas still carries reminders reminiscent of this ancient man of God. His red suit recollects the red of bishops’ robes. Gifts secretly brought on Christmas eve bring to mind his humble generosity to the three daughters.
Surely, if he were alive today, this saintly Christian would humbly deflect attention from himself. No reindeer or sleigh, no fur-trimmed coat or hat or North Pole elves working overtime. As he did in life centuries ago, Bishop Nicholas would point people to his Lord and Master.
“I am Nicholas, a sinner,” the old saint would say. “Nicholas, servant of Christ Jesus.”
Oh, may each of our lives reflect the beauty, generosity, and grace of Christ Jesus just as the man Nicholas did, giving God all the glory!
 Eusebius, Church History, VIII, 6, 9.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (saints), let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” ~Hebrews 12:1
Never read this before. May you all be BLESSED with a very Merry CHRISTmas and a Healthy, Happy New Year.
Aww Merry CHRISTmas to you, too, dear friend! I didn’t know very much of it myself, but found the research interesting. I especially loved that Nicholas was devout in his worship and love for the Lord Jesus! I ended with these words because I want people to know this is what we as believers should live like: all glory to God!
May the Lord bless you and keep you and your family from evil, danger, and deception and all our eyes fixed on Him!
Thank you for this. You are my “guest blogger” today with this article. Full credit is given to you with the link to your blog.
Have a blessed Christmas. May the Lord continue to minister through you to the rest of us in the coming year.
Jacqueline, I was able to ask a third party to check the link I mentioned, about which I was so concerned. Turns out all is well.
A couple of people have left positive comments regarding your blog post on my blog. Thank you for posting this for us.
After leaving my comment (above), I realized that there is an error with the link I supplied that could be a security issue for me. I cannot see how to private message you with this problem. Will you kindly delete my comment? Thank you.
Just some food for thought..I find it very odd that If indeed Christmas is about the Lord Jesus then why on earth so many try to make it about anything and every thing else. If the story is true which I have read this before, then it is one more testimony of we’ll say A GREAT MANY of those who love and follow the Lord! I sincerely doubt that St Nick would want his name used this way( exaulted ) like that. I was raised doing and thinking this traditional way but honestly it never made a lot of sense to me personally I had to really look into it as anyone who seeks the truth and truly wants truth will do.make sure that whatever you do that you are fully convinced in your mind and spirit that it is right else don’t do it! If you have a good gift to give someone don’t wait for an appointed season! The early church did not celebrate these things for a reason and I believe we are over do for revival! I hope no one takes this the wrong way because I am speaking from my heart what I feel without any bad feelings. I Love the Good Lord and He alone is worthy of all honor and Glory everyday! From all I have learned over the years there is actually nothing about Christmas that is approved by scripture actually quit the contrary. The truth shall set you free! Do not be conformed to the world but rather transformed by the renewing of your mind in Christ Jesus! Take that Holy Bible, don’t add too or take away from it and follow after the One your heart loves! To do as he did we will look very different than most today. Shalom
Dear Stephaney, I appreciate your comment. My whole hope is in Jesus Christ, not a man 🙂 This IS about the history of a man sold out to God.
It is exactly another great witness of a person rescued from sin by the Father through the Son!
The last paragraph of the post was meant to convey that:
“Surely, if he were alive today, this saintly Christian would humbly deflect attention from himself. No reindeer or sleigh, no fur-trimmed coat or hat or North Pole elves working overtime. As he did in life centuries ago, Bishop Nicholas would point people to his Lord and Master. Oh, may each of our lives reflect the beauty, generosity, and grace of Christ Jesus just as the man Nicholas did, giving God all the glory!”
Have you read this article on the history of st nick?
This story may explain who st. Nick is but it leaves out the origins and pagan roots of christmas not to mention the many pagan practices. For one to really understand the gravity of everything extensive studying needs to be done. One thing that is safe to say is that it has nothing to do with the Messiah.
This post is about the real St. Nick, nothing more and nothing less. Sometimes an author has to limit what is in a single post.
Have you seen this post on Santa?
Maybe you should write about what you have in mind and share it with your friends. Just know that if you come across as legalistic, you will likely close hearts to the real reason for the season – Jesus Christ!
Grace and peace,
God is wondrous in His saints! Glory to God for all things. Orthodox Christians celebrate Christ’s work in Saint Nicholas every December 6.