One of the benefits of living in the South is the ability to grow citrus in your backyard.  Instead of having to run to Kroger to pick up a few lemons to make lemon bars or oranges for fresh juice, we can step out the back door.  A winter fruit, they are a bright spot during dreary days.

While researching citrus varieties, I remembered the oranges we received in our treat bags at Christmas and I was curious to see if there was actually a connection between citrus and Christmas and discovered that there is.  Not only is there a connection between citrus and Christmas, but it is derived from an account from the life of St. Nicholas, the Christian saint on which our modern figure of Santa Claus is based.

While I do remember getting oranges in my stocking and bags at church at Christmas time when I was young, not being Catholic, I had no idea of the origin of the association.  As a matter of fact, I had never even attended a service in a Catholic church other than a wedding until the a few years ago for a community event hosted there.  Not only did I grow up in Protestant churches that were as far from Catholic as you could get, but I also attended a private Christian school that taught church history with an extremely anti-Catholic slant.  I came out of it thinking that the Catholic church was the evil empire and the source of all heresy.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started really reading the Bible cover to cover (rather than just “reading from it” as a friend puts it) and looking at not only what the Bible really says but source documents of who the church fathers over the centuries actually were that my perception of the Catholic denomination as a whole started to change.  There was a of disagreement on doctrine, some of it heretical, but far from being lukewarm Christians that muddied the faith through syncretism with the paganism around them, they were passionate defenders of the faith.

St. Nicholas was one of those early church fathers who was so sold out to Christ that he devoted his entire life to advancing the Kingdom of God.

Who Was St. Nicholas

demre turkey

Nicholas was born in Patara, Turkey (now known as Demre)  to Christian parents.[1] Different accounts state 260 AD and 280 AD for the year of his birth.  Due to the fact that he was appointed as bishop during the Diocletian persecutions, which began in 303 AD, and the fact that it is well established that he was appointed as a young man in his 20’s, it’s probable that the latter date is more accurate.

He spent a lot of time with his uncle, who was an abbot at a nearby monastery.  After Nicholas’s parents died of the plague, his uncle cared for him.  Like Hildegard of Bingen, he was raised within a monastery from an early age.  After he finished his education with his uncle, he moved to Myra, Turkey, where he became a priest.

St. Nicholas and the Diocletan Persecution

Under the influence of Galerius, Diocletian began an intense persecution of Christians in 303 AD.[2]   While there had been periods of persecution before under the Roman Empire, beginning with Nero’s persecution of the nascent church in 64 AD, the tides of persecution would ebb and flow over the next 300 years.  This last of the 10 episodes was so intense that Eusebius, the church historian, said that the blood of the martyrs flowed like a river.

Below is an account from Eusebius, who was a first hand witness:[3]

1. It would be impossible to describe the outrages and tortures which the martyrs in Thebais endured. They were scraped over the entire body with shells instead of hooks until they died. Women were bound by one foot and raised aloft in the air by machines, and with their bodies altogether bare and uncovered, presented to all beholders this most shameful, cruel, and inhuman spectacle.

2. Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For they drew the stoutest branches 330 together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this.

3. All these things were done, not for a few days or a short time, but for a long series of years. Sometimes more than ten, at other times above twenty were put to death. Again not less than thirty, then about sixty, and yet again a hundred men with young children and women, were slain in one day, being condemned to various and diverse torments.

4. We, also being on the spot ourselves, have observed large crowds in one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other.

5. And we beheld the most wonderful ardor, and the truly divine energy and zeal of those who believed in the Christ of God. For as soon as sentence was pronounced against the first, one after another rushed to the judgment seat, and confessed themselves Christians. And regarding with indifference the terrible things and the multiform tortures, they declared themselves boldly and undauntedly for the religion of the God of the universe. And they received the final sentence of death with joy and laughter and cheerfulness; so that they sang and offered up hymns and thanksgivings to the God of the universe till their very last breath.

This is what was going on when Nicholas was a young man and in the beginning of his pastoral ministry.  He was appointed bishop after his predecessor was martyred in the persecution.  He himself was imprisoned for 8 years.  He was actually one of the fortunate, as you can tell in the account above many were not so lucky.  It may have been because of his reputation he had family connections that kept him from the worst of the persecutions.  He was not released until Galerius issued the Edict of Milan, also known as the Edict of Toleration, on his deathbed.[4]

Solidifying the Faith

While there have always been differences of opinion within the Christian faith (many of the epistles of the New Testament were written to confront the heresies that sprang up from the very beginning of the church,) prior to the Edict of Milan it was a weighty matter to throw your lot in with Christ.  Even during the “good” times, when active persecutions weren’t taking place, Christians were still seen as subversive “pagans” who didn’t conform to the religious practices that were seen as such an integral part to the Roman culture and empire.  They were discriminated against and risked having their possessions confiscated.  That was the mildest.

After Constantine came to power and won a decisive victory in 312 AD after a vision of the cross and the message, “In this sign you shall be victorious,” he became a friend of the Christian church.  Much like C.S. Lewis, whose transformation from atheist to premier Christian apologist for the 20th century took place over a period of eight years, Constantine was not completely committed until 320 AD when he began vigorous efforts to discourage paganism in the Roman Empire.

At this point, there was no longer an external threat to the church, but one was raging within.  In Alexandria, a disagreement had broken out on the nature of the Trinity between Arius  and the bishop, Alexander.[5]   It was a serious issue, the nature of God and who Jesus is is the foundation of the Christian faith.[6] ( But rather than discuss it between themselves, Arius pulled his friend Eusebius, the church historian mentioned above and the bishop of Caesarea/Palestine/Israel, into the disagreement.[7]   From there, it blew up into a crisis that the entire church was involved in.

Arius had already been sanctioned; however, the controversy and the Arian movement continued.  There was a general consensus that a formal stand of the church as a whole had to be made.  This led to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD

So what does this have to do with Santa Claus?

St. Nicholas and AriusNicholas was one of the 300 bishops at Nicea.  During the council, Arius had to defend his position.  Nicholas was so incensed at the blasphemy that he heard about Christ that he punched him out.  Seriously.

The council was in an uproar and they threw Nicholas in jail for the rest of the council.[8]

In the end, Arius and his heresy were refuted and the council agreed on the creed that defines Christianity to this day:

We believe in one God, the Father All-sovereign, the maker of things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son Word of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, Son only-begotten, first born of all creation, begotten of the Father before all the ages, through whom also all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down, was made flesh and became man. lived among men, and He suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended into the heavens, is coming to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead;

And we believe in one Holy Spirit.”

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker

One of the reasons Nicholas was so well known and was regarded so highly was that he exemplified what Jesus said his followers would do in Mark 16:17-18

These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

And in Matthew 10:8:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give.

I haven’t found an account of him speaking in tongues, but other than that, there is an account of a miracle related to pretty much every other thing Jesus commanded his followers to do.[9]

Stockings and Bags of Gold

One of the most well known stories, and the one that relates most directly to some of our Christmas traditions today, is that of his gift to the man with the three daughters. (( St. Nicholas and American Christmas Customs.  St. Nicholas Center. Accessed 19 November 2013. ))

The father had fallen on hard times and did not have the resources to provide a dowry for his daughters.  The oldest decided that she would sacrifice herself by going into prostitution so that her sisters would have an opportunity to marry.  After hearing this, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold through a window which landed in a stocking hanging to dry.  He did the same the following two nights, the last of which they discovered their benefactor.  He refused to take credit and put it to the account of God’s providence and care.

The tradition of Christmas stockings stem from that legend and the oranges in the stockings are used to represent the bags of gold.

 “He Knows if You’ve Been Bad . . . “

Every child growing up has had the threat of Santa Claus bringing them a stick or a lump of coal if they’ve been bad.  He knows.

This characteristic of omniscience actually stems from an account of a miracle of St. Nicholas, one that he was most well known for and the reason he is the patron saint of children.

An innkeeper had killed and dismembered three children and hid their remains in tubs of pickles.  Nicholas was travelling in the area and came into the inn.  After a word of knowledge, or as the Catholics call it, the “reading of the soul,” Nicholas raised the children from the dead and they left with him still smelling of pickle juice. ([10]

The Tearing Down of Strongholds

But Nicholas didn’t limit himself to confronting heretical priests, he dared to expel demons wherever he found them.  There are numerous accounts of deliverance through his prayers; however, one of the most dramatic accounts is the destruction of the Temple of Artemis in Myra.

The accounts differ as to why he took it to Artemis in her own house.  Some say that he was exasperated that his congregants still had one foot in the door of paganism.  Others say that demons were afflicting the people who lived by.    Personally, I think he just wouldn’t stand for a demonic stronghold in an area under his spiritual jurisdiction.  If he would knock down someone blaspheming Christ in front of the Emperor and 299 other bishops, what are a few demons?

Regardless, he decided enough was enough.  But the account says that his weapons were not physical, he battled it with prayer. ([11]

“As soon as the Saint began praying, the altar collapsed, and the statues of idols fell down, like leaves of a tree when a strong wind blows in autumn. The demons who inhabited the place left, but protested to the Saint amidst their tears: ‘You have been unjust to us. We did you no harm, and yet you send us away from our home. We had made this our home, while these misguided people adored us, and now where can we go?” And the Saint replied, “Go to Hell’s fire, which has been lit for you by the devil and his crew.” In this manner, all altars in the area were destroyed.”

 From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus

So how did this demon busting, dead raising, power prayer warrior become the almost comical figure we think of today as Santa Claus?

This image of Santa Claus is primarily in the U.S. and areas dominated by American commercialism.  Even as late as the mid-twentieth century, St. Nick was still pictured as a Catholic bishop in Europe.

saint nicholas

And that was really the issue.  St. Nicholas was way to Catholic for the primarily anti-Catholic Americans.

Catholic = Evil in the minds of many of the early Americans and in the post Reformation effort to completely disassociate with anything that smelled remotely papist, they ended up throwing out a lot including Christmas and St. Nicholas along with the stories of the rest of the giants of the faith that the Catholic Church recorded.

The celebration of Christmas wasn’t even allowed when Puritans were in power.   This ban lost its hold as more immigrants came in who refused to give up their religious holidays.  The German settlers had particularly strong ties to their Christmas traditions.

But the transformation of hard core Nicholas to jolly Santa was really due to Washington Irving.  In 1809, he published a satirical work, complete fiction, called Knickerbocker’s History of New York   in which “Santa Claus” played a role (from the Dutch name “sinterklaus” for St Nicholas) that portrayed him as a rolly polly Dutch burgher.

This was not the only time Washington Irving’s loose regard for the truth led to misinformation by the public at large. In his biography on Christopher Columbus, he fallaciously stated that the religious leaders of the day thought the world was flat. This book was used as a textbook in many schools and that propaganda is still believed to be truth today.

St. Nicholas and Isaiah 58

Nicholas is someone I identify with in many ways and would like to become like in others.  I can totally related to wanting to just deck someone that in arrogance and belligerence denies Jesus.  I haven’t done that, but there have been so many people I have just wanted to smack some sense into.

I’ve seen some healings, but want to see the massive miracles that he walked in.  I want to be able to pray and spiritual strongholds are literally demolished.

I don’t believe that we should pray to “saints,” because as believers we are all saints.[12]  We don’t pray to people dead in the grave because the living Christ is interceding for us.[13] ( They are fallible humans just like we are.

But I do think that we can learn from their lives and be inspired that God could use them in such wondrous ways.  And if he can use them that way, he can use us in the same way.

This is what really struck me about the life of St. Nicholas.  Isaiah 58 has been a passage that has kept coming up recently.  It’s kind of been my theme for the past week, particularly verse 8.

The chapter starts out with God declaiming the superficial followers, those with self-righteous holiness.  They say they desire God, but their actions don’t line up.

“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
2     Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
pretending they want to be near me.
3 ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!’

They are saying, “We are doing all of this, why don’t you answer?”   And he replies, “I don’t want show.  This is the type of fasting, the self denial, that I want.”

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
4 What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
5 You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?

6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

That is exactly what St. Nicholas did.  He put his faith into action.  He gave to those in need, freed the oppressed, and fed the hungry.  And so, God delivered on his promise . . .

8 Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.

Nicholas’s heart was for Jesus and he cared for what Jesus cared for.  Because of that, God answered him when he called.    The story of his life is a testament that God is faithful and will do what he says:

“God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent;
Has He said, and will He not do it?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
~Numbers 23:19 NASB


[1] “Was St. Nicholas a Real Person?”  St. Nicholas Center. Accessed 18 November 2013.

[2] “Diocletian.”  New Advent. Accessed 18 November 2013.

[3] “Pamphilius,’ Eusebius. Church History. Chapter IX.

[4] “The History and Origins of Saint Nicholas.” Wesley Mission. Accessed 18 November 2013.

[5] “Arius.”  The Catholic Enclyclopedia. Accessed 18 November 2013.

[6] “Arianism.” The Catholic Enclyclopedia. Accessed 19 November 2013.

[7] Pennington, Ken. A Chronology of the Arian Controversy. The Catholic University of America.  Accessed 19 November 2013 )

[8] “The History and Origins of Saint Nicholas.” Wesley Mission. Accessed 18 November 2013.

[9] “Traditional Stories and Legends.” St. Nicholas Center.  Accessed 19 November 2013.

[10] “Poles Apart: Nicholas of Myra; How a 4th Century Bishop Achieved Fame 1,500 Years Later, with a Whole New Attitude.  A search for the Historical Santa.”  The Washington Post.  23 December 1996. Accessed 18 November 2013.

[11] “Metaphrates,” Simeon Logotheta. Vita Per Metephrasten.

[12] Romans 1:7. New American Standard. Biblegateway.

[13] Romans 8:34. New American Standard. Biblegateway.