St. Nicholas of Bari, Bishop of Myra

San Nicola St. Nicholas, Iconostasis of cefalonia  (© Musei Vaticani)

A life of obedience

Nicholas was born at Patara, a seaside town in Licia, in southern Turkey, in the third century. He came from a good family that raised him as a Christian. His life, from his earliest days, was marked by obedience. When he was orphaned at a young age, Nicholas, remembering the rich young man in the Gospel, used his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the poor. He was elected Bishop of Myra, and under the emperor Diocletian was exiled and imprisoned. After being freed, he attended the Council of Nicea in 325. He died in Myra on 6 December 343. Many stories have been handed down about Nicholas, all testifying to a life spent in service to the weak, the small, and the defenceless.

Defender of the weak

One of the most ancient stories about Saint Nicholas involves a man with three daughters of marriageable age. The family was poor, and the young girls were in danger of being forced into prostitution, because their father could not afford to offer a suitable dowry. One night, Nicholas went to the family’s home, and threw a bag of coins through the open window -- then fled before he could be identified. With the money, the father was able to procure a marriage for his eldest daughter. Nicholas returned twice more, always at night so that he could not be identified. But the third time, the father rushed out of the house to identify his mysterious benefactor. Nicholas begged him not to tell anyone what he had done.

Another story relates the fate of three young theologians travelling to Athens. Along the way, they stopped at an inn, where they were robbed and killed by the innkeeper, who hid their bodies in a barrel. Saint Nicholas, then a bishop, stopped at the same inn when he travelled to Athens. In a dream, he saw the crime that had been committed by his host. Turning to prayer, Saint Nicholas miraculously restored the three young men to life, and obtained the conversion of the wicked innkeeper.

A third story tells how Saint Nicholas freed a young boy, Basileos, who had been kidnapped from his home in Myra, and forced to serve as a cup-bearer for a foreign potentate. While his parents prayed for his safety, Saint Nicholas appeared to Basileos, and miraculously restored him to his family -- still holding the potentate’s golden cup.

These and similar stories helped to spread devotion to Saint Nicholas as patron of children and young people.

Protector of seafarers

St Nicholas is also the patron of sailors and seafarers. When he was a young man, Nicholas boarded a ship to take him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Following in the footsteps of the Lord, Nicholas prayed that he might be able to experience more fully the closeness of Jesus, and share in His sufferings. Returning to Greece, a frightful storm arose, and the ship he was on was in danger of flooding. Nicholas calmly prayed, and suddenly the wind ceased and the waves died down, to the wonder of the sailors, who feared shipwreck.

Saint Nicholas of Bari

After the death of Saint Nicholas, his tomb at Myra soon became a place of pilgrimage; his relics were considered miraculous on account of a mysterious liquid that flowed from them, known as the “manna of St Nicholas.” After Licia was conquered by the Turks in the tenth century, Venetians attempted to make him their patron -- but sailors from Bari were able to acquire his relics first, and brought them to their town in Puglia in 1087. Two years later they were buried in the crypt of a new Church, which the Baresi had built over the place where a Byzantine palace had once stood. The relics were placed under the altar by the reigning Pope, Urban II, as the Norman rulers of Puglia looked on. The translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas was seen in the Medieval period as an extraordinary event, and his sanctuary soon became an important goal for pilgrims, with the result that devotion to Saint Nicholas “of Bari” (rather than “of Myra”) spread throughout the world.

Santa Claus

In the Low Countries, and throughout Germanic lands generally, the winter feast of Saint Nicholas (in Dutch, “Sint Nikolaas” and later “Sinteklaas”), and his patronage of the young, gave rise to the tradition of giving gifts on his feast day: on the Eve of his feast, children would leave socks or shoes on a chair, or next to the fireplace, and go to sleep trusting that the following morning they would be filled with gifts.