Let’s stop and think for a minute about the deep roots of St. Nicholas.
There would be no Santa, no St. Nicholas, if there was not first a Jesus movement in Asia Minor (the area we know as modern day Turkey).
Today’s a good day to think about the roots of St. Nicholas. Why today? Because today is December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. And the closer we get to Christmas, the more we will hear people talking, in one way or another, about the extraordinary St. Nick.
But how did his story begin? To learn how it started we need go no further than the New Testament Book of Acts.
There are two cities in Asia Minor associated with St. Nicholas—Patara and Myra.
And both are mentioned in the book of Acts. Nicholas was born in Patara around 260 AD, and later became a pastor, the bishop actually, of Myra.
But how did the gospel reach those cities? Well it happened about 200 years earlier when the great Christian apostle Paul went out to the gentile world on a series of missionary journeys. In so doing he was helping fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ by bringing the gospel beyond Jerusalem to the ends of the known world. In those days, the missionary frontier in the West was Asia Minor. If you look in the back of the New Testament at the maps, you will see how Paul’s journeys went through many of the key cities of Asia Minor. He want to places like and Ephesus, and the word of the Lord spread in that area.
What did Paul preach? Again, you go to the book of Acts to find the answer to that question. He preached of God’s grace in Christ crucified and risen. He taught about the transforming power of Jesus. Once when Paul was talking to the elders of Ephesus, he summed up his ministry and shared a saying of Jesus that never appeared in any of the four gospels. He said, “in everything I did, I showed you that. . .we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus said himself, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ ” (Acts 20.35). Acts 21.1 then says, “After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Cos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara.” That was on his third missionary journey around 52 AD.
Patara—that was Nicholas’ home town. And this was most likely the first Christian witness that came to that region. So Paul most likely became Nicholas spiritual great, great, great, great, grandfather (or something like that).
Sometime later, around 60 AD, on his way to Rome, according to Acts 27.5,6, Paul actually landed in Myra as well. Acts reads, “When we had said across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia.”
Most people read these ancient city names and completely forget their significance.
But they are extremely significant for our celebration of Christmas. On these visits, Paul sowed gospel seeds (as he did in almost every city he visited) that eventually germinated and bore some amazing fruit.
A church was born, families were converted out of paganism, and a descendant of one of those converts eventually reached Nicholas with the gospel, with portions of the Scriptures, and perhaps with the very words that Paul left with the elders of Ephesus about generosity.
No doubt there were significant converts; but 200 years later there was one extraordinary convert who is known to us by his Greek name Nikolas.
Was he a real person? Of course he was. Some say he was only a legend without any credible historical information. While legends certainly surround him, there are also facts. Nicholas, who is better known to us as St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, or even Santa, was a Christian convert and pastor-bishop who had this as his spiritual heritage.
Somewhere along the way, the man who is known for his extraordinary generosity and gift giving, learned about an even greater generosity. He learned about the God who loved the world and gave his one and only son.
When the Jesus movement touched his life, it overflowed in a desire to make Christ known and to bless others in his name.
But the source of all his caring and compassion for the needy sprang from the good news of the gospel and Jesus himself. These are the deep roots we must not forget.
And that’s worth remembering on St. Nicholas day!