How the patron saint of thieves and sailors became associated with your Christmas chimney.
This holiday season Nikolaos of Myra has received more media attention than he’s seen since he was kicking around Turkey back in the fourth century. Of course back then his hometown of Patara was part of Greece, which is somehow relevant in this year’s twists on why Nick matters but doesn’t really have anything to do with my story other than it establishes location.
Nikolaos was born into a wealthy family, but his folks died when he was young and thus he was raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara. Nick went into the family business, and in 325 was one of the bishops who met at the First Council of Nicaea. For those of you not up on your Councils of Nicaea, this is when Constantine I, the Emperor of Rome, called together the highest mucky mucks of early Christendom to standardize things like how Jesus was related to God. In other words, Nick was right in the middle of things when this whole Christianity deal was getting off the ground.
Anyway, maybe it was the wealthy childhood, being orphaned young, his religious training, or just his personality, but Nikolaos was well known for his generosity. Regardless, Nicky liked to give his gifts anonymously—slip them into shoes, that kind of thing. Since Nick was an O.G. (Original Godly Guy), stories about his generosity were passed down for generations, and of course they more than likely grew with each telling. Chances are Nikolaos was kicking around the Patara 7-11 when he impulsively spotted a kid a drachma for an ancient Slurpee, and a thousand years later when that same story was told he was stopping an armed robbery like Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
For example, one of the stories regarding Nicholas describes him resurrecting three kids who were killed by a butcher who planned on selling them off like hams. Can you imagine? And what’s amazing is that isn’t even the most famous legend about Nick. How good must the stories about you be that “resurrecting ham babies” doesn’t top the list?
Number one on the list of Nicholas legends involves a poor man in his town, a father of three without enough money to marry them off. This is back in the days of dowries, and if as a father you couldn’t offer a little cash to go along with your daughter, she wasn’t marriage material. So what’s a grown, unmarried daughter of an ancient Grecian pauper have in terms of vocational opportunities? Prostitution.
Being the generous guy that he was, Nick anonymously tossed three bags of gold—one for each daughter—into the house in order to save them from lives as sex workers. There are variations to this story: sometimes the bags are tossed through a window, other versions have him tucking the gold into freshly laundered stockings, and finally some tellers had Nicky toss the gold down the chimney.
After his death, he became Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, pawnbrokers, students, and most importantly to this story: children. How those groups are related is above my pay grade. His feast day is celebrated on December 6, and the Coptic Church celebrates the Departure of Saint Nicholas on December 19. December celebrations, a tradition of anonymous generosity, legends of gifts being dropped down chimneys or tucked into stockings—sound familiar?
And it all started with one good man helping another good man keep his daughters out of the sex trade. If any of you have a lead on why ham is a Christmas tradition given that other Nicholas legend I’m all ears.