ST. NICHOLAS OF MYRA & CHILI
Russian Icon (circa late 1400’s)
St. Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of everyone and every place. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but the long list of his patronages includes many types of people and places throughout the world. He was born in the year 260 in the town of Patara and served as Bishop in the town of Myra in Lycia, a Greek providence of the Roman Empire, now modern-day Demre, Turkey. As an early Christian church leader, he was imprisoned and tortured. He survived and later died of old age in the year 335. His feast day is December 6 and he’s honored in the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox, Anglican (including Episcopal), Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Oriental Orthodox, Presbyterian, Reformed and Roman Catholic Churches.
He’s remembered for the practical ways he helped people in life as well as for the miracles performed after his death. In western modern times, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children and is known as Santa Claus in the United States.
The following life story comes from the latest research by the most recent historians who reveal, as best they can, the bare bones of truth about the life of this most wondrous saint. Interestingly, the life story of St. Nicholas of Myra was combined by an early hagiographer (saint biographer) with the life story of St. Nicholas of Sion who lived about 200 years after St. Nicholas of Myra and was most likely named for him. (In fact, there are 14 other saints named Nicholas and a great many churches and places named for him as well.) St. Nicholas of Sion was similar to St. Nicholas of Myra in spiritual strength and life events which may have caused this confusion.
Also, early hagiographers didn’t focus on writing true histories to pass down through the ages. Instead they wrote spiritual stories that emphasized the lessons of the saints for their contemporary readers. With cross referencing, sifting of embellishments, and consideration of historic time and place, I offer this as-accurate-as-possible life story.
Nicholas was the only son born to wealthy middle class parents whose names are not historically recorded. His parents were early devout Christians during dangerous times. The Roman Empire was split between the East and the West under two emperors. Sometimes the emperors were lenient with Christians, other times they persecuted them along with Jews in order to force them to worship the emperors as gods as well as give offerings to their gods and goddesses.
His parents taught him about Jesus and how to take care of fellow citizens in need. Nicholas attended an elementary school from the age of 7 to 12. Along with other boys, he learned to write on papyrus rolls with a pointed stylus. He was probably escorted to school by a family slave who was responsible for protecting and assisting him as needed.
Nicholas and his family lived along the coast and their diet included a great deal of fish. From their country’s farmlands, they obtained grapes, dates, chickpeas, lentils, olives and olive oil. They could also purchase imported foods such as corn, wheat, barley, and cheese. As a member of the middle class, not only did Nicholas eat well, he attended secondary school with a private tutor from age 12 to 18.
Right around the time that he completed his studies, both of his parents died, most likely due to a plague. Nicholas inherited their Christian spirituality, generosity, and quite a bit of wealth.
Nicholas served as a deacon and studied to become a priest in his hometown of Patara. The needs of his community and the ways of Jesus Christ in the gospels were important to him. He probably thought and prayed on Jesus’s words: “If you want to be perfect, go, and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” — Matthew 19:21
Nicholas did not follow this directive exactly. Perhaps, he continued to provide charity as individually needed because that’s how his parents taught him to do it. Or perhaps, he was just a roll-up-his-sleeves-and-jump-in-to-help kind of guy.
One day, Nicholas heard about the plight of a formerly wealthy man in town who lost his invested fortune due to crop failure or shipwreck. With no bank loans or insurance in those days, this man suddenly faced the need to sell his three daughters into slavery. Barely able to feed them, he couldn’t pay the dowries required by society and law for them to marry.
As Nicholas had grieved the sudden loss of his parents, he didn’t want these girls to be separated from their family and social place. He figured out a way to help them without embarrassing the father or drawing attention to himself. One night, he tossed a bag filled with enough gold for a dowry through the open window of the family’s home. The father woke, rejoiced, and arranged for the marriage of his eldest daughter. He prayed and wondered who would give such a gift to him, he who was so unworthy as to have lost his fortune.
Soon after, Nicholas tossed another bag of gold through the window and the father arranged the marriage of his second daughter. The father desperate for the blessing to be repeated for his third daughter stayed awake at night to pray and wonder about the gift giver.
On the night Nicholas tossed in the third bag of gold, the father raced out the front door and blocked Nicholas’s way. When the father discovered that his daughters’ benefactor was a priest, he fell to his knees in thanksgiving to Nicholas and in a new dedication to Jesus Christ.
Nicholas raised the father up and demanded that he tell no one of his identity during his lifetime. Of course, the father “promised” and this story became one of the most famous saint stories of all times. Okay, maybe the father waited until after Nicholas died before he told the story to everyone he knew, but let’s get real. He talked. People listened and forever linked Nicholas with secret gift giving to children. The part that is sometimes forgotten is that Nicholas gives his gifts in love and in the name of Jesus Christ.
Years passed. Nicholas continued helping the people of Patara with charity and social justice. People came to him regularly to help them solve disputes. Of course, he also continued with his duties to the Church.
Around the year 295, Nicholas traveled to the neighboring town of Myra to pay his respects to the bishop who had recently died. Also in Myra were a group of bishops who had gathered together to choose the next bishop of Myra. They were having trouble choosing an available, eligible priest who would accept the dangerous role of Christian Church leader. The night before Nicholas arrived, one of the bishops dreamed that God told him that the first person to walk into the church would be the next Bishop of Myra and that his name would be Nicholas. He awoke and told his dream to the other bishops.
The next morning when Nicholas walked into the church to pay his respects, the bishops surrounded him and asked his name. When he replied, “Nicholas,” they elected him on the spot. Upon hearing about the dream, Nicholas accepted his new role.
Although Nicholas was called the “Boy Bishop” because of his youth, he had reached the required age of 30 by this time. Most bishops, however, were much older.
This miraculous election happened during a time of persecution of Christians as a succession of Roman emperors tried desperately to maintain control over those they ruled. Christians and Jews were persecuted for not worshiping each emperor as a god. Church leaders were regularly arrested and tortured in an attempt to break the will of the parishioners and get them to adhere to each emperor’s form of religion. Also, these brutal emperors tried to protect their rule by preventing the Christians from forming a rebellion even though the real danger always came from the next emperor.
Nicholas was arrested, placed in prison, and tortured. Many others were put to death and are known as martyrs while those who survived are remembered as confessors.
Although he was released, the persecution and discrimination lasted about 30 years. The level of brutality depended on the latest emperor’s orders and how severely they were carried out. Nicholas preached peace and perseverance to the people and continued his good works.
And then in the West, Emperor Constantine announced an end to the persecution of Christians in his realm and declared that he had become a Christian. Soon after, in the year 324, his strong army overthrew the Eastern Emperor Licinius, and Constantine became Roman Emperor of both the East and West. Nicholas and his people were no longer persecuted.
In fact, Constantine sent materials to rebuild the church of Myra that were distributed by the same civil administrators who had earlier discriminated against the Christians. Nicholas held no grudges and immediately began overseeing the rebuilding of the church.
A few months later, Emperor Constantine invited all the bishops to the Council of Nicaea to bring Christians together in peace to agree upon unified beliefs and customs. Aside from agreeing on standardizing feasts days on the calendar and other customs that had been formally decided regionally, they agreed on the definition of the Holy Trinity – God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, equal and the same. Nicholas is remembered as gently persuading those who didn’t completely agree with nothing stronger than conversation. His name appears on the list of 300 bishops who created the Nicene Creed.
He returned home to oversee the completion of the new church of Myra and to teach his parishioners and visitors about the new unified Christian religion. He also helped his community as a civil leader and mediator in local disputes. As a holy man, he could be trusted to be neutral and fair. Many of the other bishops and holy men of this time period also fulfilled the role of father or patron to their community and this is the origin of the term patron saint.
When Nicholas was around 70 years old, a convoy of military ships disembarked in Myra and soldiers spread out through the town as tourists. Seeing an opportunity to get away with some mischief, three local men dressed up as soldiers and caused trouble including destruction of property and petty theft.
Nicholas was called to the center of town to act as a civil judge and to stop a riot started because the townspeople blamed the soldiers for this trouble. Nicholas discussed the situation with military officers named Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleons. Just as Nicholas convinced the town authorities that the trouble was not caused by the visiting soldiers, he heard that three innocent local men had been imprisoned and were about to be put to death by the order of Eustathius, the provincial governor.
Nicholas ran across town and stopped the beheading just in time. Then he burst into the home of Eustathius and lectured him about proper legal proceeding and chastised him for accepting bribes. The three Roman officers witnessed all parts of this event and were impressed by Bishop Nicholas and his strong beliefs and actions.
Ironically, upon their return home to Constantinople from their victorious battle with the Goths, they were greeted with jealous accusations of conspiracy against Emperor Constantine. The accusations were brought to Ablabius, Constantine’s Praetorian prefect (legal administrator) who, probably due to bribery, lied to Emperor Constantine. Constantine ordered the military officers imprisoned and sentenced them to death at dawn.
They sat helplessly in prison. When they realized that no one would speak on their behalf, they despaired. Then it occurred to them to pray to the “God of Nicholas” for the miracle of their release. That night Nicholas appeared to Constantine in a dream and demanded the release of these men.
Emperor Constantine called in Ablabius who was terrified because he had the same dream. The three men were brought to the emperor, and he demanded to know how they performed their magic. They had no idea what he was talking about.
But when he asked them if they knew Nicholas, they happily told the story of their dealings with Nicholas and how they prayed to the “God of Nicholas.”
Upon seeing the divine in their story, Emperor Constantine apologized for his part in their false imprisonment and released them. The three men traveled to Myra with gifts in thanksgiving to God and veneration of the blessed Nicholas.
This story was most famous during the centuries immediately following the death of Nicholas. Because everyone knew the story so well, the earliest biographers supplied only short references to it. Icons were painted depicting this story as well as other stories of the life of St. Nicholas.
In the icon of this story, the three men are pictured in prison looking up at St. Nicholas. Now imagine that this icon is viewed by someone who can’t read but has a good imagination and story-telling abilities. That’s how, over the years, different versions of this story have been told. In one version, three young children are killed by an innkeeper and pickled in a barrel so that he can later butcher them and serve them to customers. The next customer is Nicholas. He immediately denounces the innkeeper, raises the children from the dead, and sends them home.
I’ve included this horrible, little tale because I have vivid memories of “reading” picture books before I learned how to read. It’s really easy to make up different stories for pictures. It’s also interesting to note that this version of the story surfaced around the same time as the Brothers Grimm published their fairy tales.
Another favored story is the miraculous way Bishop Nicholas provided grain for the people during a famine. A ship arrived in the port loaded with grain to be delivered elsewhere. Nicholas asked for a portion of grain and promised that when the shipment was delivered to their customer, the full amount would be there. It was. The people had all the grain they needed to survive the famine as well as enough to plant in the spring.
A champion for Christ and his people until the end, around age 75, Nicholas died a gentle death from old age in the year 335. (Although, it may have been one or two years earlier and there’s no proof that his death took place on December 6.)
Almighty God, in your love you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both on land and on sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. – Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints
The people of Myra built a special church outside the walls of the city and placed the body of Nicholas in a marble and cement tomb. Shortly thereafter, the tomb began to leak a pleasant smelling liquid which the people called Myrrh. This miraculous liquid was said to have healing powers and it was collected and mixed with water or oil and taken home by pilgrims who traveled to this site.
Nicholas was soon declared a saint at a time when sainthood was determined by a vote of local bishops. But the people called him St. Nicholas even before his death.
St. Nicholas remained in the hearts of the people. In the year 555, Emperor Justinian built a shrine to St. Nicholas in Constantinople on a piece of land that jutted out to the Sea of Marmara. Many miracles aboard ships at sea have been attributed to St. Nicholas of Myra. (Although, some of those stories really belong to St. Nicholas of Sion.)
Sometimes invaders destroyed shines, tombs, and basilicas. There is a record of Arabic Saracens destroying a St. Nicholas basilica on an island now called Gemiler Island.
In 1065, Seljuk Turks began to invade from the east. They destroyed Christian churches, chapels, tombs, etc. They harassed pilgrims on their spiritual journeys. To combat this threat, unorganized Christians painted red crosses on white shields and attacked the holy lands. Called the crusades, these brutal wars caused death and destruction on all sides.
In an effort to save the relics of their beloved saints, Italian pirates, I mean, rescuers, talked their way into the Church of St. Nicholas in Myra. While the monks stood helpless, they broke open the tomb and took the bones of St. Nicholas. It should be noted that the 62 sailors listed as being involved in the adventure, smelled a lovely scent wafting from the water that held the bones at the bottom of the tomb which they interpreted as a sign that they were doing the right thing.
They arrived in Bari on May 9 and transported the bones of St. Nicholas to their new resting place in the Tomb of St. Nicholas, Basilica di San Nicola, in Bari, Italy. May 9 is celebrated throughout Italy, especially in Bari, as the second feast day of St. Nicholas, the day of his translation to Bari.
The people of Myra, modern-day Demre, Turkey, continue to petition for the return of these relics.
Amazingly, this second tomb of St. Nicholas in Bari also leaks liquid Myrrh. The liquid was analyzed in 1925 and determined to be mostly water. People who travel as pilgrims to this site can purchase a bottle of St. Nicholas Myrrh mixed with water or oil.
The sailors from Bari didn’t collect every bone at the bottom of the water-filled tomb. Relics of St. Nicholas of Myra are scattered throughout the world. Relics are extremely important to folks who believe that because they are part of a beloved saint, they are infused with his or her divine love.
Words, however, travel faster than bones. Stories about the wondrous St. Nicholas of Myra traveled from port to port shared by sailors over a pint in the pub or across mutton in the market place.
People retold the stories and maybe they added or changed the details to embellish the story or to make it more familiar to their audience. Over time, painters painted, writers wrote, and singers sang.
This brings us to modern-day Santa Claus in the United States, Father Christmas in England, Sinterklass in the Netherlands, etc., – different versions of the same story of a man, strong in person and spirit, devoted to serving people, especially children, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
St. Nicholas is a saint whom I’ve loved under a different name as far back as my memory goes. Do I still believe in Santa Claus?
If you are old enough to read this post, you are old enough to understand the absolute best part about Santa Claus is that he can’t do it all by himself. He needs our help. Santa’s helpers spread the spirit of Christmas not just to children who believe in a special magic, but to our family, friends, and anyone who needs a little extra love. Christmas spirit is love swaddled up with the Baby Jesus — created to be shared. And just like the miraculous gift of Christ on Earth, the spirit of Christmas can be simply magical.
For More Info:
THE SAINT WHO WOULD BE SANTA CLAUS: THE TRUE LIFE AND TRIALS OF NICHOLAS OF MYRA by Adam C. English
Christmas spirit is spread particularly at Christmas time, on the feast day of St. Nicholas (December 6), or on Epiphany (January 6). But really, it can be shared anytime. Here’s an example:
A few weeks ago, during an appointment with my chiropractor, I asked him if he knew of a secret ingredient I could add to my chili because I wanted to jazz up my recipe for a chili cook-off at my church.
“You want my recipe? I won the 1995 Bud-light Chili Cook-off with it,” he said.
“You won that chili cook off?” I asked.
“Yup. It was me and 26 restaurants. You want it?” he asked.
“Yes, I want it! But are you sure you’re okay with giving me your secret award-winning recipe?” I asked.
“Sure. I’ll email it to you later,” he said.
I had such fun making this recipe — first a trial run for friends, then the big batch for the chili cook off. Alas, I didn’t win.
However, I now have a delicious chili recipe that my family absolutely loves AND permission to share it with y’all.
The recipe makes a big batch. If you have a large enough pot, go ahead and make the whole thing. Otherwise, you’ll have to sharpen your pencil and do a little math to cut the recipe in half or quarter. This chili is easy to share, either with guests, at a party, or packaged into the freezer for later.
One more really fun thing about this recipe is that each mouthful starts off sweet and ends spicy hot. How did my Greek chiropractor create a chili recipe that could do that?
Hard work and, perhaps, a dash of magic.
BACK BONE CHILI
1995 Bud Lite Chili Cook-Off Winner, Wilmington, NC
Recipe by Dr. Greg Demetrious
8 pounds Ground beef, 90% lean
2 Very large onions, chopped fine
1 Bunch celery, chopped fine
1 Whole head garlic, chopped fine
2 Large green peppers, chopped medium
2 Whole fresh jalapeño peppers, chopped medium
2 Whole ripe tomatoes, chopped medium
1 8-oz jar jalapeño peppers, drained
1 28-oz can plum tomatoes, chopped large
1 12-oz can tomato paste
36 oz Pace Picante Sauce, Medium spiciness
1 cup Sugar
12 oz Light beer (or beef broth or water)
4 teaspoons Basil
4 teaspoons Oregano
4 teaspoons Onion powder
4 teaspoons Garlic powder
4 teaspoons Salt, or to taste
4 teaspoons Pepper, or to taste
1 tablespoon Cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 tablespoon Chili powder, or to taste
½ cup Olive oil for sautéing
If you have a very large frying pan or wok, sauté, over medium heat, all the fresh vegetables together until translucent. Otherwise, sauté in batches and add to a large pot.
Add pickled jalapeno peppers, canned plum tomatoes, tomato paste, Pace Picante sauce, sugar, beer, chili powder, and cayenne pepper to the pot.
Brown beef in approximately two-pound batches in a little olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. To each batch add 1 teaspoon each of basil, oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Stir and mash with fork until cooked through. Drain fat. Place each batch in pot.
Cover pot and simmer over low heat for 3 ½ hours. Stir often. Add seasoning to taste.
Optional garnishes – sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, chili peppers, red kidney beans.
Optional side dishes – corn bread, corn muffins, or corn chips.
Or serve Chicago style, over a plate of spaghetti.
(Originally posted on 2/7/2013 to Saints and Recipes on Blogger.)
I’ve done many things in my life that I later came to regret, but not once have I made a giant pot of chili and later thought, “You know, I wish I hadn’t made all that chili.” – Mike Peterson
Second Bonus Material: April 12, 2019 — At the end of 2018, I worked on a massive family photo scanning project, and I uncovered the delightful progression of my daughter’s experience with visiting Santa Claus. See, Santa is a metaphor for St. Nicholas of Myra, and the Saints are metaphors for Jesus because they embody Him.
Third Bonus Material: April 12, 2019 — I wrote this post in 2013, back before I was writing some of them as book reviews. So, I want to shout out to author, Adam C. English. This is an excellent book — highly recommend!