“…he had a broad face and a little round belly,
that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!
…he was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!”
During a time of year when images of this certain “jolly old elf” seem to be as ubiquitous as the sparkling lights and hanging greenery found about town, perhaps it might do to look deeper into this figure that has come to be perceived as nothing less than some sort of secular demi-god.
In the year 280 AD a boy named Nicholas was born in a provincial fishing village along the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, near modern-day Turkey.
He lost his parents while still a youngster but not before they helped him discover the gift of faith in Jesus Christ.
Following the death of his parents, Nicholas moved to the nearby city of Myra. Though still a young man, he had vowed to himself to live a life of giving and service to others. Upon arriving to town, he was presented with an immediate opportunity.
A local businessman had lost all of his money and could not afford a dowry for his three daughters. So desperate was the man that he was on the verge of selling them to brothel.
Word of this came to Nicholas, who hurled a bag of gold through the man’s open window under the cover of darkness. As each daughter came of age, the man found another bag of gold for dowry.
This was but the first of many acts of charity and munificence that were soon to follow. So great was his work for the needy and underprivileged, that the populace soon clamored for him to be named as their Bishop.
It was a rather unorthodox decision for a man barely on the cusp of full-fledged adulthood, but the local religious authorities gave him their full endorsement.
For some men who come to a position of rank while still young and impetuous, there is a general tendency for this power to corrupt. Be it among the rulers of antiquity or the entertainment celebrities of our own era.
However, with this role Nicholas had found his life’s calling.
Over the years that followed, Nicholas lived his life in a shining example of Christian service, gradually exhausting a wealthy inheritance left to him by his parents in caring for the poor and disadvantaged.
Taking his role as a minister with the utmost sincerity, it was not only to the material needs of his people that he applied himself but also to their spiritual needs as well.
He was reported to be in attendance at the Council of Nicæa (325 AD), issuing a severe rebuke against the heresy of Arianism, and is documented to have written against the various pagan practices in his vicinity.
Nicholas lived a life dedicated to the service of others and the message of Jesus Christ, often suffering harsh persecution and imprisonment under the chaotic rule of the waning Roman Empire.
He died in the year 352 A.D. and his body was later moved to Italy, where it remains interred in the Basilica di San Nicola to this day. But the story of Nicholas of Myra, and the countless stories of his unbridled generosity spread like wildfire eastward into Russia and westward into Europe.
It was told how, despite his position, he begged for food for the poor, among the most repeated stories was how he would put on a disguise and go out to give gifts to underprivileged children and needy families. In fact, Nicholas gave away everything he ever had, including that which he begged from others.
Over the span of centuries hence, people have done many things to Nicholas.
Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have canonized him, and more European churches are named in honor Nicholas than any other person, save for Biblical figures.
Various others have given him different names: Belschnickel, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklasse, and a host of others.
An English poet gave Nicholas a red nose and eight tiny reindeer, a German artist gave him a round belly and a red fur trimmed suit, and an American soft drink company made him a corporate icon, but those things are really not important… are they?
What truly matters is the life lived in the example and mindset of Jesus Christ, an example to be pursued by all of us whom claim the Name above all others.
The life Nicholas lived in meekness, humility, and selfless love has since touched the whole world… and that is the true story of jolly ol’ St. Nick.