Saint Nicholas

From New World Encyclopedia

Saint Nicholas
Russian icon Instaplanet Saint Nicholas.JPG

Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, Holy Hierarch
Born Third century C.E. in Patara, Lycia
Died December 6, 343 C.E. in Myra, Lycia
Venerated in All Christianity
Major shrine Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy
Feast December 6
Attributes Bishop Episcopalian vestments. In Eastern Christianity, a Gospel book and omophorion.
Patronage Children, sailors, fishermen, the falsely accused, pawnbrokers, thieves, many cities

Saint Nicholas (Greek: Νικόλαος, Nikolaos, "victory of the people") was Bishop of Myra during the fourth century C.E., well known and revered for his charitable nature. Much of what is known about his life is historically uncertain, consequently his figure has been developed into more of a legend, and his persona has extended into and is now most notably identified with Christmas characters such as Santa Claus, Father Christmas or in the Netherlands and nothern Belgium, Sint-Nicolaas or Sinterklaas. This historical character was the inspiration for such figures of Christian folklore, and among Eastern Orthodox Christians, he is remembered and honored.

Nicholas is said to have lived in Roman Empire's Lycia, modern day Demre in the Antalya province of Turkey, and his death date of December 6 has become a holiday known as Saint Nicholas Day, which is now closely tied to Christmas day customs. He has become known as the patron saint of children, sailors, and merchants, and to this day, he remains as the historical root of the "giving spirit of Christmas."


Nicholas is said to have been born during the third century in the Greek colony[1] of Patara to wealthy and devout Christian parents. He was known to be very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to God and Christianity—a devotion which eventually brought him to be Bishop of Myra. His parents died while he was still young, leaving him with an inheritance which he is said to have donated entirely to the poor, an act which certainly helped promote his reputation for charitableness.

As a young man, Nicholas became Bishop of Myra, which was during the reign of co-ruling Roman emperors Diocletian (reigned 284–305) and Maximian (reigned 286–305) from which comes the estimation of his age. Diocletian issued an edict in 303 authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. Following the abdication of the two emperors on May 1, 305 the policies of their successors towards Christians were different. In the Western part of the empire, Constantius Chlorus (reigned 305–306) put an end to the systematic persecution upon his accession to the throne. In the Eastern section Galerius (reigned 305–311) continued the persecution until 311 when he issued a general edict of toleration from his deathbed. During this time, it is believed that Nicholas suffered from Christian persecution and was imprisoned for his religious beliefs, being released upon the persecution's end.

The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to Saint Nicholas, among them one temple of Artemis (also known as goddess Diana). Because the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas's feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.

Nicholas is also known for coming to the defense of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his prayers on behalf of sailors and other travelers. The popular veneration of Nicholas as a saint seems to have started relatively early. Justinian I, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 527–565) is reported to have built a temple (i.e. a church building) in Nicholas's honour in Constantinople, the Roman capital of the time.

Old picture of Saint Nicholas in Clérey-la-Côte, Lorraine, France

Abduction of his relics

On August 26, 1071, Romanus IV, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 1068–1071), faced Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks (reigned 1059–1072) in the Battle of Manzikert. The battle ended in humiliating defeat and capture for Romanus. As a result, the empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor to the invading Seljuk Turks. It would regain its control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081–1118). But early in his reign Myra was overtaken by the Islamic invaders. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari, Italy, seized the remains of Saint Nicholas from his grave over the objections of the Orthodox monks. Returning to Bari, they brought the remains with them and cared for them. The remains arrived on May 9, 1087. Some observers have reported seeing myrrh exude from these relics. According to a local legend, some of these remains were brought via three pilgrims to a church in what is now Nikolausberg in the vicinity of the city of Göttingen, Germany, giving the church and village its name.

The Basilica of San Nicola by night

Deeds and miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and is often called upon by sailors who are in danger of drowning or being shipwrecked. According to one legend, as a young man Nicholas went to study in Alexandria and on one of his sea voyages from Myra to Alexandria he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship's rigging in a storm. In a colorful version of this legend, Nicholas saved the man on his voyage back from Alexandria to Myra and upon his arrival took the sailor to the church. At that time the old bishop had just died and the church fathers were instructed in a dream to choose for their next bishop a "man of victory" (Greek: Nikei). While the saint was praying, the loose-lipped sailor went around telling how courageously he was saved by the man Nikei-Laos, upon which the church elders had no choice but to appoint Nicholas as their new bishop.

Another legend tells of a terrible famine which struck the island during which time a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, only to kill and slaughter them and put their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also managed to resurrect the three boys from the barrel. Another version of this story, possibly formed around the eleventh century, claims that they were instead three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them, and was advised by his wife to dispose of them by turning them into meat pies. The Saint saw through this and brought the men back to life. This alternate version is thought to be the origin of the English horror legend, Sweeney Todd.

In his most famous exploit however, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him. Being too modest, or too shy, to help the man in public, he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window onto the man's floor.

One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". Invariably the third time the father lies in waiting, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.

Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Russian merchants (fresco by Dionisius from the Ferapontov Monastery).

For his help to the poor, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop symbolize the three sacks of gold. People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to Saint Nicholas.

A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is also considered a time of exchanging gifts.

It is said that in Myra, the bones of Saint Nicholas sweated out a clear watery liquid each year called manna, which was said to possess immense powers. As the bones were stolen and brought to Bari, they continued to do so, much to the joy of the new owners. Continuing to this day, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6 (the saint's feast day). It is, however, worth noting that the tomb lies at sea level in a harbor town so the occurrence of watery liquid can be explained by several theories. Neither the church nor any scientists have ever tried to analyze the fluid—truth still lies in the eye of the believer.

Formal veneration of the saint

Among the Greeks and Italians, Saint Nicholas is a favorite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbors. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea," often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognizable saints and December 6 finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of the nation of Greece.

In the Middle Ages, both Saint Nicholas and Martin of Tours were celebrated as true "people's saints." Many churches were named for them and later gave their names to the villages that emerged around them. As described above, while most contemporary saints earned their place in heaven by dying for their faith in manners most unusual and cruel, both Nicholas and Martin lived peacefully to a ripe old age. At a time of religious wars and crusades the idea that one could go to heaven, even become a saint, just by the way one lived instead of the way one died must have offered a great deal of consolation for the Medieval common folk. Therefore this made Saint Nicholas a 'popular' saint in every sense of the word, more than all his miracles combined.

In late medieval England, on Saint Nicholas' Day parishes held "boy-bishop" celebrations. As part of this celebration, youths performed the functions of priests and bishops, and exercised rule over their elders.

Today, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European countries. According to one source, Medieval nuns used the night of December 6 to anonymously deposit baskets of food and clothes at the doorsteps of the needy. According to another source, on December 6 every sailor or ex-sailor of the Low Countries (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbor towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy some hard-to-come-by goods, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas. This, and also his miracle of his resurrecting the three butchered children, made Saint Nicholas a patron saint of children and later, students as well.

Due to the modern association with Christmas, Saint Nicholas is a patron saint of Christmas, as well as pawnbrokers. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, or Eastern Roman emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.

Saint Nicholas the festive gift-giver

Saint Nicholas Day is a festival for children in much of Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American Santa Claus, as well as the Anglo-Canadian and British Father Christmas derive from this icon, the name 'Santa Claus' being a degeneration of the Dutch word Sinterklaas.

Some elements of this part of the Saint Nicholas tradition could be traced back to the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). The appearance is similar to some portrayals of this god. In the Saint Nicholas tradition in the Netherlands and Flanders (Northern Belgium) he rides a horse over the rooftops, and this may be derived from Odin's riding through the sky. Also his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten ('Black Peters') may be a remnant of the raven that accompanied Wodan.

The history of the festive Saint Nicholas celebration is complex and reflects conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a canonised saint, Martin Luther replaced the festival that had become associated with the Papacy with a "Christkind" (Christ child) celebration on Christmas Eve. The Nicholas celebrations still remain a part of tradition among many Protestants, albeit on a much smaller scale than Christmas. The Protestant Netherlands, however, retain a much larger Saint Nicholas tradition. Many Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted Luther's Christkind.

Holiday Legend and Custom

Many variations of the celebration of "St. Nick" have developed as has his legend throughout the centuries following his death, but the general concept of gift-giving remains to be the center of holiday custom.

For example, many children in Europe put a boot, called Nikolaus-Stiefel in Germany, outside the front door on the night of December 5 to December 6 (sometimes the date of celebration varies according to different customs). Saint Nicholas is then said to come and fill the boot with gifts, and at the same time check up on the children to see if they were good. If they were not, they will have charcoal in their boots instead of presents. Sometimes a disguised Nikolaus also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they "have been good" (sometimes ostensibly checking a book for their record), handing out presents on a per-behavior basis.

According to some variations of the legend, Saint Nicholas' figure is also accompanied by an evil counterpart Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat, or sometimes actually eat the children for misbehavior. Knecht Ruprecht furthermore was equipped with goatlegs. In Switzerland, where he is called Schmutzli, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the Black Forest. In other accounts he would throw the sack into the river, drowning the naughty children within. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries such as Austria.

In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behavior and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten to beat them with a rod. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, who local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them, even occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Mikuláš is often also accompanied by an angel(anděl) who acts as a counterweight to the ominous devil or Knecht Ruprecht (čert).

In Slovenia Saint Nikolaus (Miklavž) is accompanied by an angel and a devil (parkelj) corresponding to Austrian Krampus.

In Luxembourg "Kleeschen" is accompanied by the "Houseker" a frightening helper wearing a brown monk's habit.

In Croatia Nikolaus (Sveti Nikola) who visits on Saint Nicholas day (Nikolinje) brings gifts to children commending them for their good behavior over the past year and exhorting them to continue in the same manner in the year to come. If they fail to do so they will receive a visit from Krampus who traditionally leaves a rod, an instrument their parents will use to discipline them.

In Hungary children typically leave their boots on the windowsill on the evening of December 5. By next morning Nikolaus (Szent Miklós traditionally, but more commonly known as Mikulás) leaves candy and gifts if they have been good, or a rod (virgács) if they have been bad (most kids end up getting lots of candy but also a small virgács). He is often accompanied by the Krampusz, the frightening helper who is out to take away the bad kids.

In recent times, many of such customs have grown weary in extremity and much less violent in nature, although they still remain a part of Saint Nicholas' holiday legend more or less (according to the different regions in which they are celebrated). In many countries, Saint Nicholas has grown into or has developed into a part of Christmas celebrations, most notably in accordance with the legend of Santa Claus. In Christmas custom, stockings (instead of shoes or boots) are often filled with presents or coal on Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus, who brings the presents, is sometimes interchangeable with the figure Saint Nicholas. Other times Saint Nicholas is referred to as a special helper of Santa Claus.


  1. Mulroy, David D., Horace, Quintus Horatius Flaccus. 1994. “Horace's Odes and Epodes.” p. 183.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Demi (illustrator). The Legend of Saint Nicholas. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2003. ISBN 0689846819
  • Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. ISBN 0679412239
  • Steele Commager, Henry. The St. Nicholas Anthology. New York: Greenwich House, 1975 and 1983. Distributed by Crown Publishers. ISBN 0517420821
  • Tompert, Ann and Michael Garland. Saint Nicholas. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, 2000. ISBN 156397844X

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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