St. Nicholas: An early champion of ending hunger

December 6, 2015
Russian icon depicting St. Nicholas with scenes from his life. Late 1400s or early 1500s. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Stephen H. Padre

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. He was the Bishop of Myra, which is part of modern-day Turkey, and lived from 270 to 343. While he’s the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, pawnbrokers, and students, you may know him best as the model for Santa Claus because he had a reputation for secret gift-giving.

There are various legends surrounding St. Nicholas, and some contain some gruesome details. According to one, Nicholas was visiting an area that was suffering from a famine to care for people who were hungry. A butcher lured three little children into his house and killed them (another version says they were clerks who wanted to spend the night). He placed their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Nicholas resurrected the three victims through his prayers.

In another legend, Nicholas is in his hometown of Myra during a famine. A ship was in the port, loaded with wheat for the emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas asked for some of the wheat from the ship for people who were hungry. At first, the sailors refused, but Nicholas promised them that they would not get in trouble for sharing. When the ship arrived at its destination, the sailors discovered that the weight of the load had not changed, even though some wheat had been removed. The amazing thing was that there was enough wheat to supply the town for two full years with enough for planting.

The Christian traditions that honor saints like Nicholas do not worship the saints themselves but view them as models of a godly life. As individuals and through our collective work, we can follow the examples of the saints in our own efforts to live as God intends us to.

With a reputation for assisting people who are hungry, Nicholas should perhaps also be the patron saint of the anti-hunger movement. The wheat sharing legend is, in a way, a model that Bread for the World follows. The food that was taken off the ship was somehow multiplied, its usefulness extended for a time and for other purposes. Bread for the World is also in the multiplication business. Its advocacy before Congress influences the national policies, programs, and conditions that can bring hunger and poverty to an end. When Bread wins advocacy victories in Congress, people who are hungry and poor benefit in multiple ways—for years after a bill is passed, or through a safety-net program that allows an unemployed worker to feed her family while she searches for a new job.

For many, St. Nicholas Day is an occasion for giving candy to children (who leave their shoes by the door the previous night and hope they don’t receive a lump of coal instead). But given Nicholas’ supposed connections to famines and his deeper reputation of helping people who are hungry, he is a worthy example to consider in our work of ending hunger. He’s also known in song as “jolly old St. Nicholas.” Surely we can be jolly with him at Christmastime, but we can also live like him and remember people who are hungry and poor in our prayers and actions. 

Rejoice in God's saints, today and all days!
A world without saints forgets how to praise.
Their faith in acquiring the habit of prayer,
their depth of adoring, Lord, help us to share.

--Rejoice in God’s Saints Today and All Days, vs. 1 (Fred Pratt Green, 1977)

Stephen H. Padre is the managing editor at Bread for the World.

Photo: Russian icon depicting St. Nicholas with scenes from his life. Late 1400s or early 1500s. Wikimedia Commons.

As individuals and through our collective work, we can follow the examples of the saints in our own efforts to live as God intends us to.

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