06 December 2001

Since it's December 6th, this means it's also St. Nicholas Day! I hope he filled your shoes with all kinds of goodies last night.

Here's the true story of St. Nicholas:

He was born into a wealthy Christian home in the third century. Nicholas felt a deep calling toward Christian service and was duly ordained a priest. His parents died while he was still rather young, leaving him a grand inheritance. Nicholas in turn devoted his riches to the service of God.

St. Nicholas' most famous act of charity involved a nobleman of Patara who had suddenly become bankrupt. The poor man had three daughters whom he wished to marry off. Customarily, the father awarded the groom a dowry, but being impoverished the man could not provide husbands for his girls. Unable to support his daughters, he resolved to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas was grieved when he heard of this situation.

Under the cover of night, the saint secretly threw a bag of gold in the poor man's open window. Upon finding it in the morning, the man was delighted. The man used the gold as a dowry and a suitor took his eldest daughter in marriage. As time passed Nicholas did the same for the second daughter. The man was gratefully suspicious and when Nicholas came by the third time, the poor man caught him. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the poor man thanked Nicholas for his generosity. Nicholas begged the man not to reveal his charity to the public.

After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Nicholas was elected Bishop of Myra at the end of the 3rd century. This was an era of great persecution against the Christians and Nicholas along with much of his flock were seized, tortured, chained, and imprisoned by the Roman magistrates. Nicholas was in prison when Constantine the Great arose to imperial power in AD 312. He was freed and returned to Myra. The bishop incessantly preached against paganism and legend has it that he destroyed a temple dedicated the goddess Artemis.

Another story involves Nicholas rescuing men condemned to death. The governor Eustathius had been bribed to execute three innocent prisoners. At the time of the execution, Bishop Nicholas arrived and approached the prisoners. The saint stayed the hand of the executioner and released the three men. Nicholas then turned around to the evil governor Eustathius and reproached him until finally the governor confessed his crime and repented.

St. Nicholas died in December 6th either 345 or 352 and was buried in Myra. In eleventh century there was a great competition between Venice and Bari for the saint's relics and eventually Bari received the saint's body on May 9, 1087. It said that the body of Nicholas produces a sweet smelling myrrh, even to this day. As a result, many pilgrims are drawn to his tomb.

In Christian iconography, St. Nicholas is depicted more frequently than any other saint, except for St. Mary the Mother of Christ. He is often represented as holding three purses. Nicholas is the patron-saint of children, sailors, Greece, Apulia, Sicily, Russia (along with St Andrew), and Lorraine.

Because the saint's day is so close to Christmas, and because his three gifts to the poor man are somewhat analogous to the three gifts received by Christ from the Magi, St. Nicholas became closely associated to Christmas. Currently he is the most venerated saint in America, though ignorantly under the guise of "Santa Claus" (a corruption of "Sanctus Nikolaus" or the like).

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

(info on st nick, courtesy of taylor marshall)