270 years after the birth of Christ, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire. Part of that expansion included Lycia, on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey.
A wealthy couple in the town had one son, Nicholas. He grew up devout, and after his parents died, was raised by his uncle, the local Bishop. As a young man he went on pilgrimage to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Shortly after he returned he was named Bishop of the region, and in 325 AD, he was one of a small group of Bishops who attended the First Council of Nicaea at the request of Emperor Constantine. Those bishops developed the Nicene Creed at that meeting, a statement of faith that is still used worldwide to this day.
Nicholas gained a reputation for helping others. The two most famous stories about that include one where in the middle of a severe famine he arranged to distribute desperately needed food to the entire community. In the other he changed three local girls’ lives by secretly arranging to provide the money for their dowries so they could marry and avoid being sold.
He died on December 6, and that day was commemorated for over a thousand years.
In medieval times nuns used that night to deposit baskets of food and clothes anonymously at the doorsteps of the needy. By the 1500s it was a common practice in Holland for children to put out their shoes on the 5th, to discover gifts that St. Nicholas had left for them on the morning of the 6th. Dutch immigrants brought the gift-giving ways of St. Nicholas, also known by his nickname Sinterklaas, to America in the 1700s.
Here St. Nicholas went through many transformations. Eventually Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, and the gift-giving tradition was merged into the Christmas holiday. His place in our holiday and our minds was cemented by the 1820 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas“, better known now by it’s beginning line: “Twas the Night before Christmas“.
We won’t all be remembered for millennia for the actions we take in this life. Even if he’d never been remembered by strangers, Nicholas did make life-changing differences to those around him. At Christmas, and as we plan for the new year, that’s a good thing to remember.
We too can change lives of those around us, one at a time. The opportunities are there.
Have a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.