St. Nicholas: the legend behind the myth

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joshua Magbanua
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Imagine a random man hopping onto your roof in the middle of the night, breaking into your home, eating your food and leaving gifts behind. This is not the kind of person most people want to meet.

Also bear in mind this man probably evades taxes by setting up his business in an austere location, and drives his unpaid labor force to work day and night, producing cheap goods. Sounds like a freeloader, a scrooge and … Santa Claus? Yes, Santa Claus.

However, the man who serves as the historical inspiration for Santa Claus was actually kind and charitable, according to Maj. Paul Amaliri, the 39th Air Base Wing’s deputy wing chaplain. Amaliri shared various stories, ranging from heartwarming to dramatic, about the mysterious saint who many people recognize today as a red-suited man flying reindeer around the globe.

The chaplain led a mass for his parishioners on Dec. 6, the traditional religious day devoted to the original St. Nicholas. Although people around the world celebrate St. Nicholas, this day is especially unique to Incirlik Air Base because he lived within the borders of modern-day Turkey.

“St. Nicholas was actually born in this country,” said Amaliri excitedly. “He lived in a town known today as Demre, which is actually not too far from us here at Incirlik.”

Little is known about the life of the saint. Although sources agree he served as a bishop in the Christian Church during the fourth century A.D., many of the stories surrounding him differ in detail and could not be independently verified. It is believed by many that he was orphaned at a young age and received an inheritance from his parents—which he used to help disadvantaged people.

Amaliri recounted one of the most popular stories associated with St. Nicholas, where he saved three sisters from being sold into prostitution or servitude. As the story goes, the sisters’ father couldn’t afford to pay their dowries: prices for marriage in the cultural context of that era. Rather than allowing their father to sell them off, St. Nicholas intervened by secretly placing bags of money in their home—once a night for three nights.

“He used the wealth he inherited from his parents, not just to help himself, but also to help other people,” said Amaliri. “St. Nicholas found out about the sisters and used part of his inheritance to pay for the dowry, but he didn’t stop there. He continued to do so much more for other people.”

According to National Geographic, another one of St. Nicholas’ acts of kindness includes a time when he supposedly resurrected three young boys after they were murdered, dismembered and pickled in brine. There was a famine at the time and it is said an innkeeper slaughtered the boys for the purpose of selling their flesh under the guise of pork. St. Nicholas discovered the crime and restored the boys to life after piecing them back together.

A tale popular with church historians takes place in the year 325 A.D. during the Council of Nicaea. The council, which itself was verified as a historic event, served as the setting of an intense theological debate. According to legend, St. Nicholas lost his temper while arguing with a bishop and slapped him. The rest of the bishops restrained St. Nicholas and locked him in a holding cell for the duration of the council.

That’s right, jolly old Santa Claus lost his cool during a church meeting, hit a guy in the face and got put on the naughty list. The other bishop was slapped because he made blasphemous claims about Jesus Christ: the central figure of Christianity who would soon have his own religious festival in December—just like St. Nicholas.

Amaliri discouraged violent means like those illustrated in the light-hearted but heavy-handed anecdote. Instead, he encouraged people to emulate St. Nicholas’ generosity. The saint’s reputation of selflessness is what sparked the holiday season as a time of charity and gift-giving, Amaliri claimed.

“St. Nicholas made this part of the world a better place, and his legacy spread,” he said. “He is celebrated around the world today as Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Like him, we can learn to seek out the less privileged in our society and help them.”

Amaliri added that acts of charity don’t always have to involve money, because people can donate their time and talents as well. He challenged individuals to ask themselves how they can be the change they want to see in the world—because changing the world starts with changing oneself.

“St. Nicholas looked beyond himself,” said Amaliri. “One of the Air Force’s core values is service before self. That is exactly what he did. In the spirit of Christmas, let us learn from his example and find ways to make our world a better place.”