Nicholas of Myra (AD 270-343) was a pastor in modern-day Turkey and a courageous defender of orthodox Christian theology. He was also wealthy, using his resources to help mentally challenged children. He gave gold to three young women so they could afford to be married. He often visited children at night, disguised in a red and white hooded robe, leaving gifts of money, clothing, or food on their windows or fireplaces.
After his death, so many pilgrims began visiting his tomb that it was rebuilt in the sixth and eighth centuries. In 987 he was named the patron saint of Russia. In the year 1087 his remains were purchased by Italian merchants and moved to the city of Bari on Italy’s western coast, where they are preserved today in the church of San Nicola.
The Dutch especially appreciated his ministry. They spelled his name “Sint Nikolaas,” which in America became “Sinterklass” or “Santa Claus.” He was made famous in our culture by Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a theology and classics professor at Union Seminary in New York. In 1822, he wrote a poem for his children titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. The illustrator Thomas Nast put Dr. Moore’s figure to art, creating the figure you know as Santa Claus.
Now we know what he really looked like. In the 1950s, his relics were removed while his crypt at Bari was renovated. While they were out, the Vatican asked an anatomy professor to take measurements and x-rays of his skull. A facial anthropologist has now reconstructed the saint’s face using new technology and those measurements. When she began laying virtual muscles onto the 1,600-year-old skull of Saint Nicholas, the results were remarkable.
He’s more olive-skinned than rosy-cheeked. His nose was clearly broken; some believe that it was injured during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, who reigned from 284-305.
Nicholas of Myra deserves the gratitude bestowed on him by centuries of tradition. In caring for the children and poor of his day, he served Jesus himself: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). God’s word is clear: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
The world will believe that God loves them when we do. How will you care for those in need this Christmas season? We now know what Santa Claus looked like; who will see the face of Jesus in yours?