By Bob Smietana / The Tennessean
Like the modern-day Santa Claus, the real St. Nicholas had a long white beard, wore red robes and loved to give gifts to children.
But he wasn't always so jolly.
According to legend, St. Nicholas, who was bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey, feuded with local pagans, tore down one of the temples and got so mad at another priest during a heated church meeting in 325 A.D. that he smacked his rival upside the head.
The rival, named Arius, later was named a heretic. Nicholas, meanwhile, apologized and was saved from punishment after Jesus and the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision.
The story of the battling bishop is one of many legends recorded in "The Saint who would be Santa Claus," a new biography of Nicholas, by Adam English, a religion professor at Campbell University in Lillington, N.C. There's also the story of him fighting a wicked priest in the woods of Poland, saving sailors caught in a raging storm and rescuing three innocent men sentenced to death.
A time of unrest
Those legends - and Nicholas' penchant for giving out gifts - have helped make him the most popular saint not found in the Bible, said English.
"There's a saying in Russia that goes, 'Even if we lose God, at least we will still have Nicholas,' " he said.
English spent four years working on his biography of St. Nicholas, including a trip to the basilica in Bari, Italy, where the saint's bones were laid to rest. He said that separating fact from fiction about St. Nicholas isn't always easy.
Unlike other early saints, Nicholas wrote no letters or other works of theology. His name appears in only a few records from the famed Council of Nicaea, where the legendary fight with Arius supposedly took place. Most of the stories about Nicholas were written long after his death.
A few details are known. English said Nicholas was born in the city of Patara on the coast of the Mediterranean around 260 A.D. It was a tumultuous time for the early Christian church. The faith had recently been made legal after years of persecution under the Roman Empire.
It faced fierce competition from pagan worshipers at the temples of Athena and other Roman gods, political unrest and internal fights over the basics of theology.
"He came out of a time when Christianity had been persecuted and people bore the scars of that persecution," said Justin Oelgoetz, a member of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Mission, which meets monthly in Franklin. "This is the world he was from - not some snow-covered, warm and fuzzy place where elves make toys."
Nicholas became a hero first for standing up to heretics and pagans and for defending the faith. But it was his acts of generosity that made him beloved.
The most famous story about Nicholas involves a man who had three daughters. The man fell on hard times and was unable to find husbands for his daughters because they were so poor. According to legend, his only choices were to sell them into prostitution or let the family starve.
Nicholas heard of their plight and in the middle of the night threw a bag of gold into the window of the family's home. The bag contained enough money to provide dowries for the girls to get married.
"He really saved their humanity," said Ingrid McIntyre, executive director of Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit that works with the homeless in Nashville. "He is an example of everything we hope to be."
Nicholas also had a social activist side, said English. He convinced a Roman judge to release three innocent soldiers, arranged for a shipment of grain that saved his city during a famine and even protested against high taxes.
"Who doesn't want a saint like that?" said English. "Maybe we should be looking to St. Nicholas for help in getting off the fiscal cliff."
Then there were the miracles, which included bi-locating, the ability to be in two places at the same time.
Most of the miracles were actually attributed to a second saint, known as St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker, from the city of Sion. But about 1,000 years ago, a writer working on stories of the lives of the saints mixed the two together, said English.
Since then, countries around the world have created their own version of St. Nick. The St. Nicholas Center, an online tribute to the saint, lists stories about Nicholas from 38 countries.
While Americans associate St. Nicholas with Christmas Day, he's actually best known around the world for his feast day on Dec. 6. Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern rite Catholics also remember him during prayers most Thursdays.
In England, he is known as Father Christmas, while in Russia, he's a wonder worker. In the Netherlands he's known as SinterKlaas and rides on horseback in his red bishop's robes and long white beard. In the 1800s he became associated with Christmas in the United States, according to www.stnicholascenter.org, an online tribute to St. Nicholas.
Carol Meyers of Holland, Mich., started the online tribute in 2002 as a volunteer project. The site now attracts about a million visitors a year.
Meyers said the saint has an important message for the modern world.
"St. Nicholas is a model for modern living; he points to the center of Christmas, the birth of Jesus," she said. "His message is one of giving, more than getting; of compassion, not consumption; of need, rather than greed."
Nicholas has become so popular in part because he lived such an ordinary life, said English. Many early saints were either characters from the Bible, or martyrs killed for their faith or monks who lived in the desert and saw visions of God.
Nicholas was more practical. He lived in a city and spent his time taking care of people's day-to-day needs.
"He's very human," said Kim Markovchick, a member of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Mission. "He was very much a normal person."
Markovchick grew up hearing about St. Nicholas from her parents, who were Eastern rite Catholics. She has an icon of St. Nicholas in her home and celebrates his feast day every year.
The Rev. Gregory Hohnholt of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Nashville said St. Nicholas offers a great example of how to live a holy life.
Even when the saint was angry, St. Nicholas acted out of love. So in the legendary story of hitting Arius, he did so to help Arius see the error of his ways, said Hohnholt.
"I told my people, 'That worked for St. Nicholas, but it doesn't work for you,' " he said.
The story of St. Nicholas is especially on Hohnholt's mind this year.
Eleven years ago, historic St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan was destroyed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was the only church building ruined on that day, he said.
Rebuilding was delayed for a decade because of red tape. But construction on the new church should begin next year, said Hohnholt.
Hohnholt said he hopes parents will teach their kids a little more about St. Nicholas this year and a little less about Santa.
"For us, he is a real person," he said. "He is not a fat guy in a red suit flying through the air."