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Like many good things, this story begins with a mother's prayer.
During the days of the Roman Empire, in a province called Lycia, in what is now the country of Turkey, a husband and wife longed for a child. Theophanes and Nonna, their names are said to have been. Their home was Patara, a flourishing town at the mouth of the river Xanthos on the Mediterranean coast, a place where the forested hills sloped down to the clear blue sea.
Theophanes and Nonna were a well-to-do couple. Perhaps they inherited land and money. Theophanes may have run a prosperous trade in cloth or milled grains. History does not tell us. We know only that, according to one old chronicle, they were people "of substantial lineage, holding property enough without superfluity."
Their comfortable lives were troubled by one great unhappiness: though they had been married for many years, they had never managed to have children. As time passed, they wept and waited, but no child came. Still, Nonna refused to give up hope. Instead, she did something very wise. She prayed. Like Hannah in the First Book of Samuel in the Bible, she poured out her soul to God, asking him to remember her.
It must have seemed like a miracle when late in life, after so many hopes and tears, Nonna's prayer was answered around the year A.D. 280 with the birth of a son. She surely recalled how Hannah, who was finally blessed with the boy Samuel, had vowed to "give him unto the Lord all the days of his life" (1 Samuel 1:11 KJV).
Some say that when Nonna's child was placed in his bath right after birth, he stood up by himself and raised his arms as if in praise of God. Others say that on Wednesdays and Fridays, traditional days of fasting for early Christians, he refused to nurse until after sundown. Such are the legends. But there must have been something that made the proud parents hope that their child would someday serve God and his fellow men in some remarkable way. They christened the baby Nicholas, a name that in Greek means "people's victor," after an uncle who was an abbot at a nearby monastery.
Patara was a good town to grow up in, a bustling center of trade full of sights for a boy to explore. Wide avenues lined with columns and paved with stones led from town gates past houses, shops, and temples to busy agorai (market squares). Beneath brightly colored awnings, merchants arranged their goods: grapes, olives, cheese, herbs, dyed wool and cotton, pottery, jewelry, leather, glassware, skins of wine. The shoppers who haggled with vendors and the men who swapped news in the shade of roofed colonnades all spoke Greek, the dominant language of that part of the world. Young Nicholas must have spent many hours listening to the shouts of the tradesmen advertising their wares and the talk of women filling jugs with water at the public fountains.
As he roamed the streets of Patara, the boy saw reminders of both his proud Greek heritage and imperial Rome's wide reach. A temple to Apollo drew travelers hoping to divine the future from a revered oracle. The grand assembly building, where officials from all over Lycia met to debate, could seat one thousand people. Elegant baths with rooms covered by marble tiles dotted the city. A massive monument with three Roman arches, built to honor a governor of Lycia, supported an aqueduct that brought water to Patara's inhabitants.
On a hillside near the sea stood the favorite spot of many Patarans, the amphitheater. More than two dozen tiers of stone seats rose above a raised stage where actors spoke or sang their lines. The crowds that gathered to enjoy comedies, tragedies, and dances could be a rowdy bunch, stomping their feet when pleased or throwing olive pits when disappointed by the show.
But Nicholas's favorite spot may well have been the port, where the boy could watch fishing boats unload the day's catch and merchants' ships arrive from points around the eastern Mediterranean: Rhodes, Cyprus, Antioch, Alexandria, and beyond. Occasionally seaman who had made it as far as Rome itself sailed into Patara. They brought news of Roman armies on the march, edicts of emperors, and tales of distant places like North Africa and Gaul.
AT ABOUT AGE SEVEN, Nicholas was placed under the charge of a pedagogue, a trusted slave who took him to school, helped him with lessons, and kept him out of mischief. The boy gathered with other students under a roofed colonnade to study grammar and arithmetic. He practiced writing with a stylus on a wooden tablet covered with beeswax, and listened intently as the schoolmaster told ancient stories such as how Achilles killed Hector outside the walls of Troy.
But there was one part of the boy's education not to be trusted to a pedagogue or schoolmaster, and that was the matter of faith. Theophanes and Nonna had embraced a new and growing religion, one that required utmost devotion. They were members of Patara's Christian community.
In the two and a half centuries since the time of Jesus, Christianity had spread from the remote province of Judea on the eastern Mediterranean to much of the Roman Empire. The story of the carpenter from Galilee had won converts from Palestine to Britain. His message of love brought new hope to believers. Christianity welcomed all races and classes into a community that offered refuge in a tempest-tossed world.
On Sundays, Nicholas and his parents attended services in a neighbor's house, where they prayed, sang hymns, and studied scripture. They loved the Book of Psalms for its soul-stirring verses, such as, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing" (Psalm 100:1-2 KJV). They carefully memorized the words of Jesus: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matthew 25:40 KJV). They shared bread and wine in remembrance of the Last Supper so they would be one with Christ. At the end of prayers they said Amen (so be it), and they sounded praise with the word Alleluia (God be praised).
Nicholas loved hearing stories about the boy David slaying the giant Goliath, Daniel standing unharmed in the pit of hungry lions, and the friends of the paralyzed man lowering him through the roof of a crowded house so Jesus might heal him. He learned that the Apostle Paul, traveling on the road to Damascus, was struck down by a blinding light and heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" The tireless missionary had visited Patara on one of his famous journeys and left behind a small group of converts. Christians copied the letters that Paul wrote to congregations in places such as Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi, and passed them from church to church, pouring over words such as, "[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7 NASB).
Nicholas's parents taught him early on that Christians served God by serving the less fortunate. In an age when the general rule of existence was "Fend for yourself or die," a Christian's duty was to help others. Churches organized to care for the poor and sick. "See how those Christians love one another!" pagans marveled.
At times it was dangerous to be a Christian. The Roman Empire, though vast and mighty, faced desperate problems: a series of weak emperors, outbreaks of plague, generals who fought each other for power, attacks by barbarians along the empire's borders. When officials needed scapegoats to take the brunt of public frustrations, it was all too easy to single out Christians who refused to worship the old gods of Rome and sacrifice to the emperor.
The boy Nicholas heard stories of how the emperor Nero had blamed Christians for a disastrous fire that swept Rome in A.D. 64, and how he had made human torches of Christians to light his garden at night. He heard about Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, who was seized by the proconsul Statius Quadratus and ordered to curse Christ.
"I have wild beasts," the proconsul threatened. "If you do not repent, I will have you thrown to them."
"Send for them," Polycarp replied.
"If you do not despise the wild beasts, I will order you to be burned alive."
"Why do you delay? Bring on what you will."
They burned him alive while the crowd shouted, "This is the father of the Christians! This is the destroyer of our gods!"
In times of persecution, Christians might live one edict away from imprisonment or death. In years when rulers let them alone, they remained a close-knit community, protective of each other and wary of rumors of official displeasure.
But if being a Christian brought occasional scorn or danger, it also brought immeasurable rewards. As Nicholas grew, his faith grew. The old writers tell us that he began to spend less time following boyish pursuits, and more time pondering the message that Jesus had brought to the world. As he approached manhood, he discovered that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace.
THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED THAT surely must have tested his faith: a plague swept through Lycia, passing from town to town, cutting down whole families, striking rich and poor alike. Theophanes and Nonna were among the dead.
Nicholas, left alone in the world, went to live with his uncle at the monastery to recover from the blow. Slowly, bewilderment and despair gave way to acceptance. He asked God for strength and discovered that it came to him. As he healed, he resolved to train for the priesthood. As a first step, he made up his mind to give away his possessions, including the inheritance left to him by his parents. This decision gave rise to the most beloved story about Nicholas.
In Patara, there lived a family that had fallen on hard times. They had once been wealthy, but misfortunes had overtaken them, and now they were so poor they had barely enough to live on. The father had tried to find work, but when people saw his soft hands, which had never known any kind of hard labor, they took him to be lazy, and turned him away.
The man had three daughters of marriageable age, but their chances of finding husbands were grim since the father could offer no dowries. (In those days, a young woman needed a dowry to attract an offer of marriage.) As their financial situation grew desperate, the father realized that the only way to ensure the survival of his children was to sell them into servitude. At least that way they would have enough to eat.
When news of the family's plight reached Nicholas, he at once set about thinking of a way to help them. He remembered Jesus' teaching that "when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret" (Matthew 6:3-4 NASB). He soon came up with a plan. That night, he put several gold coins into a small bag and started out for the home of the father and his three daughters.
The hour was late and the streets deserted when he arrived. Inside the house, the family was sleeping. Nicholas crept up to a window, reached through, and dropped the bag of gold. (Some say that it landed in a shoe, others in a stocking that had been left hanging to dry.) Then he hurried away before anyone saw him.
The next morning the family discovered the bag of gold. Weeping with joy and astonishment, they fell to their knees to thank God for the generous gift. Not only did they have money to live on for some time, there was enough to provide a generous dowry for the oldest daughter, and she was soon married.
When Nicholas saw how much happiness his secret gift had caused, he decided the second daughter must have a dowry, too. He went to the house at night, as before, and dropped a second bag through the window. The next morning brought more tears of joy and astonishment, and more thanks to God for the miraculous gift. The second daughter soon had her dowry and was married.
The father dared to hope that his third daughter would also receive a gift that would allow her to marry. But now he was determined to find out who the earthly angel who had saved them might be. Night after night he stayed up, waiting and watching. Finally, late one night, just as he had concluded that their mysterious benefactor had deserted them, a bag of gold came flying through the window.
The man rushed out of the house, ran after the shadowy figure that was hurrying away, and caught it by the cloak. When he recognized Nicholas, he fell to his knees and began to kiss the hands that had helped his family so graciously. Nicholas asked him to stand, and told him to thank God instead. He begged the father not to tell anyone the secret of who had left the gold.
Despite his longing for anonymity, Nicholas's act of generosity set him on the path to becoming the world's most famous gift giver.
The True Saint Nicholas © 2009 William J. Bennett