This article is part of our series, “Cloud of Witnesses: Stories from the Church.” Read more from the series here.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
These are the opening lines to the famous poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” more commonly referred to as “The Night Before Christmas.” The author, Clement Clarke Moore, was the first to link Saint Nicholas with Christmas. In doing so he essentially created Santa Claus as we think of him today. The sleigh drawn by reindeer, rosy cheeks, white beard, and jiggling belly all feature in the poem. But who was the real Saint Nicholas? The truth is, that’s a rather hard question to answer. Moore was not the first to invent stories about Saint Nicholas. In fact, almost every story that has been passed down to us about Nicholas is likely exaggerated or totally invented. So what can we be sure of?
Some Basic Facts
We can be pretty certain that Nicholas lived between about 260 and 335 AD in the city of Myra, which sat on the coast of the Mediterranean sea in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). During these years he would have seen Rome in turmoil and observed Constantine’s victory over his competition for sole rule of the Roman Empire, which transformed the empire from a pagan society to a Christian one. These broader events are reflected in the stories of Nicholas’s life that come down to us. From claims that he was persecuted under Diocletian to tales that he was at the Council of Nicea, Nicholas is firmly placed in this time period, even if we have a hard time sorting fact from fiction in the sources that tell us about his life.
The Earliest Story
Though we don’t have the full book, we have a chapter from the oldest known biography of Nicholas. It is called Stratelatis (Greek for Military Generals), and it was written sometime around 400 AD. This chapter recounts two stories about Nicholas. In the first, he hears that three innocent men are about to be executed. Aghast, he immediately heads to intervene. As he gets closer, passersby tell him that the beheadings are imminent, so Nicholas runs as fast as he can. As he draws near he sees the three men, kneeling with heads down as the executioner raises his glittering sword high, ready to strike. Now sprinting, Nicholas arrives just in time to wrench the sword out of the executioner’s hand and save the innocent men from an unjust death.
The second story has many parallels to the first. Once again, we learn three men have been unjustly accused and sentenced to death, this time by Emperor Constantine. One of them remembers how Nicholas saved the other three men from execution, and so he prays to Nicholas. According to the story, Nicholas appeared to Constantine in a dream and said:
“Constantine, emperor, rise and free those three men whom you have remanded to prison… officers of the army, who have been condemned on hearsay. If you do not obey me, I will stir up an uncontrollable revolt against you, and hand over your carcass and your entrails to the wild beasts for food, bearing witness against you before the celestial King Christ.”
Constantine heeded this startling and violent warning and freed the soldiers he had planned to execute. So much for Jolly Old Saint Nick! These stories portray Nicholas of Myra as a pastor who is deeply concerned with justice for the innocent and totally unafraid to confront injustice.
Nicholas the Boxing Theologian
Our sources about Nicholas include more than books. We actually have Nicholas’s remains and a reconstruction of his face has been made using his skull. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about him is his broken nose. How did it happen? The truth is we have no idea. But it’s fun to wonder if this could be evidence—really the only bit of evidence—for this rumor: at the Council of Nicaea, Nicholas got in a fight with the heretic Arius and punched him in the face!
While it’s funny to imagine Santa Claus attacking a heretic, the fact is, it’s unlikely that either Arius or Nicholas were at the Council of Nicaea. What we do know from Nicholas’s other biographers is that he held to an orthodox doctrine of Christ and rejected Arius’s claim that Jesus was less than fully divine. If there is any kernel of truth to the legends about Nicholas at the Council of Nicaea, perhaps they are an echo of his zeal for the doctrine of the true deity of the Son of God.
Michael the Archimandrite
The first complete biography of Nicholas was written during the 9th century by a monk named Michael the Archimandrite (a title meaning overseer of monks). Unlike modern biographies which generally try to present a realistic and unbiased portrait of the subject, Michael’s biography was more of a hagiography: a life of a Saint. Hagiographies are not typically as concerned with the facts as they are with presenting an overwhelmingly positive account of a person’s life. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Michael embellishes some facts. With all that said, it is from Michael’s account that we get the most familiar story about Nicholas of Myra, which also leads us to associate him with Santa Claus.
This story begins with a man, once wealthy, who has fallen on hard times. In the face of his newfound poverty, he struggles to know how to make ends meet. Though he is a Christian, he doesn’t turn to God but tries to take matters into his own hands. He has three attractive daughters, and so he thinks that the logical thing to do is to send them to work at the brothel. Nicholas hears about this man’s situation and the sinful solution he has resolved to employ. Deeply moved, he makes plans to intervene at once. In the middle of the night, Nicholas sneaks up to an open window outside of this man’s house, tosses in a large bag of gold, and scurries home, lest he be discovered. The next morning the man is shocked and overcome with thankfulness towards God for the generous gift. With the gold, he can pay a dowry for his oldest daughter to get married.
When Nicholas hears about the marriage, he decides to secretly give another bag of gold for the dowry for the second daughter. When this daughter is married, Nicholas decides to give away his money once again, this time for the marriage of the final daughter. Like the last two times, he comes in the dead of night to throw the gold through an open window. But this time, the man is waiting! He stayed awake to find out who had been so kind and charitable. Sure enough, the bag of gold comes flying through the window. As soon as it hits the ground, he sprints out of his house and overtakes Nicholas, who is trying to get away unseen. He thanks him profusely, but Nicholas asks him not to tell anyone else. Apparently, the man did not do as Nicholas asked, and so to this day, we know him for his generosity and humility. He was the first secret Santa!
Who was the Real Santa Claus?
Who was the real Santa Claus? We can’t say for sure. Separating fact from fiction is an impossible task in this case. Indeed, it’s likely that the stories we have about Nicholas of Myra contain much more fiction than fact. So, what can we say about Nicholas? From sprinting at top speed to halt an execution, to secretly giving away gold in the dead of night, to punching heretics in the face, the stories that come down to us portray a passionate firebrand of a man. Maybe the man behind all the legends is just a pastor passionate for justice, passionate for mercy, and passionate for the truth of the gospel. If that’s the spirit of Saint Nicholas, may we all hope to be a little more like him this Christmas.
 Much thanks to R. Scott Clark who researched the history of St. Nicholas and led me to the primary sources that are used in this article. See his research here: https://heidelblog.net/2021/12/the-st-nicholas-of-history-sort-of/
 For example, Michael tells stories of Michael’s habits as an infant to show his saintliness. Apparently, Nicholas’s virtue was evident from the beginning by the self-control he exhibited while nursing. For this story and the story that follows see: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/who-is-st-nicholas/stories-legends/classic-sources/michael-the-archimandrite