The Man behind the Legend
The Dutch call him Sinterklaas, which the Americans have morphed into Santa Claus. He was St. Nicholas – 4th century bishop of Myra.
Nicholas was born to relatively affluent parents in Asia Minor during the 3rd century at Patara in the province of Lycia (in modern day Turkey). He later came to Myra to continue his studies, where he was introduced to the local bishop, who took the young Nicholas under his patronage. He was ordained as a priest at an early age.
He received his inheritance when his parents died, but gave it all away in charity. He became renowned for his generosity to the poor and needy. Nicholas is also known for coming to the defence of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his prayers on behalf of sailors and other travellers. Nicholas rose to the position of bishop of Myra during the reign of the emperor Licinius. He was well-loved and respected in his diocese as a result of his charitable activities.
The destruction of a temple of Artemis (known to the Romans as Diana) is attributed to him. As the date of Artemis’s birth falls on December 6th, many have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen to overshadow/replace pagan celebrations.
The most famous of many stories told about him is how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by tossing dowry money through their windows so they could get married.
There was a certain formerly rich inhabitant of Patara, whom St. Nicholas saved from great sin. The man had three grown daughters, and in desperation he planned to sell their bodies so they would have money for food. The saint, learning of the man's poverty and of his wicked intention, secretly visited him one night and threw a sack of gold through the window. With the money the man arranged an honourable marriage for his daughter. St. Nicholas also provided gold for the other daughters, thereby saving the family from falling into spiritual destruction. In bestowing charity, St. Nicholas always strove to do this secretly and to conceal his good deeds.
- from OCA's Life of the Saint
Another (less) well-known story is how, at the First Ecumenical Council, he struck the heretic Arius:
St. Nicholas, fired with zeal for the Lord, assailed the heretic Arius with his words, and also struck him upon the face. For this reason, he was deprived of the emblems of his episcopal rank and placed under guard. But several of the holy Fathers had the same vision, seeing the Lord Himself and the Mother of God returning to him the Gospel and omophorion. The Fathers of the Council agreed that the audacity of the saint was pleasing to God, and restored the saint to the office of bishop.
The popular veneration of Nicholas seems to have started relatively early. Emperor Justinian I is reported to have built a church in Nicholas’s honour in Constantinople. Myra was overrun by the Mohammedans during the early reign of Alexius I Comnenus. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari, Italy raided and seized the remains of the saint despite the objections of the Greek monks then caring for them. Arriving on 9th May, 1087 to Bari, many people reported seeing myrrh exude from the relics.
A Greek chapel is now in place at Bari for the Orthodox, so nobody is excluded from the veneration of the holy relics. Turkey, most unusually, continues to demand for the return of the relics. In other news, Turkey replaces bronze statue of St. Nicholas with a plastic one of Santa Claus.
Iglesia de San Nicolas Cuenca, Spain
The legend of St. Nicholas crosses all over the world – revered as the patron saint of seamen, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers, pawnbrokers, prisoners, Amsterdam and of Russia. In the West, he is the patron of sailors and thieves because his relics were stolen by sailors and transported to Italy. In the East, he is remembered with more reverence and less frivolity for his defence against the Arian heresy.
Images: St. Nicholas Center, OCA