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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Before Santa, He was just Bishop Nicholas...

St. Nicholas of Myra...
Without a doubt, one of the most beloved and well known saints of all time is fourth century Catholic Bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra, who is better known during the past two hundred years, as Santa Claus.

For our family, St. Nicholas holds a special place because, not only is he the patron saint of children, and our two younger ones look forward every year to his arrival on Christmas Eve, and even track him on NORAD, but he is also the patron saint of my five-year-old son, whose middle name is Nicolas; better known as "Nico."

Since it falls during Advent, where our family lights the wreath, prays and reads about a saint each night before and after dinner, every year, we get a small cake, our son blows out candles and we read his story, to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas, which the Catholic Church observes on December 6th. 

In fact, we make a big enough deal that my son asked me earlier this week if he had to go to school on his saint's day.  Sorry, dude!

Anyway, by now, most Christians know the legend of St. Nicholas, who is known, among other things, for having saved three young destitute girls from a life of slavery (and/or prostitution), since they could not get married because their widowed father could not afford a dowry for them.  Nicholas is said to have secretly thrown bags of gold coins through their open window in the cover of night, which, according to the story, ended up landing in the stockings and shoes that were placed near the fire place; thus the legend of Santa Claus was born.

St. Nicholas, who, despite being born to wealthy parents, was orphaned early in life due to his parents' death from an epidemic, and was raised by an abbot uncle, became known for his generosity and acts of mercy, especially towards kids.  He sold off his inheritance to assist the needy and sick and dedicated his life to serving God; becoming a bishop at an early age.

During the ruthless persecution of Christians, in the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned. 

Although disputed, legends say that after his release, he attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, of The Davinci Code fame, which was actually spearheaded by the Roman Emperor Constantine, and sought to resolve the Arian controversy (named after a priest named Arius of Alexandria) that put into question the divinity of Christ.  Arianism was drawing dozens of priests and, even some, bishops into the line of thinking, and disputes were heated.  Constantine feared it would prompt civil unrest and asked the bishops to hold a council to address the matter.  Nicholas joined Bishops Athanasius, Alexander, and a great majority of others, in denouncing the heresy and establishing the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in Catholic Masses.     

Soon after his death, several years later, Nicholas' popularity grew.

Churches started being built in his honor and his tomb in Myra became a place for pilgrimages, although because of war, his relics were moved to a seaport village in Italy in the early eleventh century.

Eventually, St. Nicholas became known as Father Christmas in Europe and Santa Claus in America in the 19th century.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

The fact that Bishop Nicholas stood firm to his faith despite the persecution and hardships of his time.  And, despite it, was able to give himself entirely for the good of others by sharing all he had and living as a true example of Christian virtue, St. Nicholas' memory has endured for about 1600 years and he continues to be loved and influence millions of people, especially kids around the world, who, although partially through legend, have learned the gift of giving to those in need and, as importantly, the joys of Christmas morning.

So tonight, the Espinosas will celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas and remember a life dedicated to loving God and neighbor; the greatest all commandments...

For more on St. Nick, check out the St. Nicholas Center here.

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