History of Saint Nicholas
Naysayers claim St. Nicholas existed only in legend, without any reliable historical record. Legends, though, usually grow out of factual events; however, they may be embellished to make events more interesting. St. Nicholas’ legend may be reality intertwined with myth. While all of the “Santa Claus” legends are clearly fairy tales, the following facts of St. Nicholas’ life are purported to be derived from historical truth. These stories give us an idea of his personal character, as well as what the man may have been like. The information and stories here have been compiled from several Internet sources, including EWTN, Catholic Online and one which claims to have gathered their information ‘from various sites throughout the Internet’. This site states they ‘made every effort to compare and extract the items that seemed to be based on actual historical facts.’
Nicholas was born into a wealthy family about 350 miles northwest of Bethlehem in Patara. It is believed he was born in the third century between 260 and 280 AD; although, the exact date is unknown. Patara, which was Greek at the time, is now on the southern coast of Turkey. He was a Christian man who loved children, and loved his neighbors with the love of Christ. He spent his life privately giving gifts to the unfortunate. These usually secret acts of Christian charity, in addition to the Three Wisemen’s gifts to the baby Jesus, may have led to the tradition of exchanging gifts during the Christmas season. He died December 6, 343 AD in Myra.
December 6th, therefore, is the feast day of St Nicholas.
Nicholas’ history is vague, but there are many legends associated with him. We are told Nicholas was raised by pious and virtuous parents who had him study the sacred books by the age of five. “He was exceedingly well brought up by his parents and trod piously in their footsteps. The child, watched over by the church enlightened his mind and encouraged his thirst for sincere and true religion” His parents died when he was a young man, leaving him well off, and he was determined to devote his inheritance to works of charity. An opportunity soon arose.
Story of the Dowries
There was a man, once rich, who had fallen on hard times. Now poor, he had three daughters of an age to be married. In those days a young woman’s family had to have something of value, a dowry, to offer prospective bridegrooms. The larger the dowry, the better chance a young woman had to find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery, or worse.
Word of the family’s misfortune reached Nicholas, who had the wealth inherited from his parents. Coming in secret by night, he tossed a bag of gold into the house. It sailed in through an open window, landing in a stocking left before the fire to dry. What joy in the morning when the gold was discovered! The first daughter soon wed. Not long after, another bag of gold again appeared secretly. The second daughter was married. The father, now very anxious to know who the secret benefactor was, kept watch during the night.
A third bag of gold landed in the house and the watchful father leaped up and caught the fleeing donor. “Ah, Nicholas, it is you!” cried the father, “You have saved my daughters from certain disaster.” Nicholas, embarrassed, and not wishing to be known, begged the man to keep his identity secret. He told the man to thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to his prayers for deliverance.
This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes, the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. For this reason, three gold balls, also represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. Hence, St. Nicholas is known as the gift giver.
These three bags or purses of gold represented in pictures are believed by some to have been mistaken for the heads of three children. This belief gave rise to the absurd story of the children, resuscitated by the saint, who had been killed by an innkeeper and pickled in a brine-tub.
The Evil Innkeeper
In France the story is told of three small children having fun playing in the fields. As they play, they wander off toward the town. Walking about and exploring, the children lose track of the time. It is now late, the sun is going down; the children are hungry, tired and lost. They approach a lighted butcher’s shop, saying, “We are lost and hungry. May we eat and sleep?” “Oh, yes,” comes the reply, “do come in.” As they enter, the butcher takes a sharp knife, cuts them up, and puts them in a large salting tub. Time passes. Then a knock comes on the door. Bishop Saint Nicholas appears, saying to the evil butcher, “Open your large salting tub!” The saint, putting his hand on the tub, appeals to God, saying, “Rise up, children.” The little children are restored to life; their families joyfully welcome them home. Since then, St. Nicholas has been called upon as the patron and protector of children.
Coming to the city of Myra when the clergy and people of the province were in session to elect a new bishop, St. Nicholas was indicated by God as the man they should choose. This was at the time of Diocletian’s persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century. The Greek writers go on to say that now, as leader, “the divine Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with other Christians. But when the great and religious Constantine, chosen by God, assumed the imperial diadem of the Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with them the illustrious Nicholas, who when he was set at liberty returned to Myra.”
As bishop, Nicholas was a servant of God and a shepherd of the people, caring for their needs. His active pursuit of justice for his people was demonstrated when he secured lower taxes for Myra, saved the lives of three men wrongly condemned, and secured grain in time of famine. He taught the Gospel simply, so ordinary people understood, and he lived out his faith and devotion to God in helping the poor and all in need. These stories are another testament to his defense and protection of his people.
Tax Relief for Myra
The people of Myra were suffering under the burden of heavy taxes. They begged Bishop Nicholas to ask the emperor to relieve them of the high taxes which caused such hardship. Nicholas went to Constantine to plead the cause of his people. The emperor heard Nicholas’ pleas and granted a large cut. Nicholas received a written copy of the order. He immediately took the copy and went down to the sea where he threw the parchment out into the water. Soon afterwards it was fished out of the water near Myra and taken to the proper authorities. It was put into immediate effect and taxes were lowered substantially.
Meanwhile the finance ministers had convinced Constantine that losing this revenue would seriously harm the royal treasury. Constantine summoned Nicholas back and asked to have the order returned so it could be changed to a much smaller tax cut. When Nicholas reported that the order had already been put into effect in Myra, Constantine sent a runner to determine the truth. How could it be true when Bishop Nicholas was still in Constantinople? However, when Nicholas’ words were confirmed, the emperor allowed the full reduction to stand. A century later Myra’s people still attributed their low taxation to St. Nicholas.
Nicholas’ Burial & Pilgrimages
All accounts are unanimous to Nicholas’ burial in the episcopal city of Myra. By the time of Justinian, some two centuries later, his feast was celebrated on December 6th, and a church was built over his tomb. The ruins of this domed basilica, which stood in the plain where the city was built, were excavated in the nineteenth century. The tremendous popularity of the saint is indicated by an anonymous Greek in the tenth century who declares: “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the farthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are erected in his honor.”
When Myra and its great shrine finally passed into the hands of the Saracens in 1034, several Italian cities made plans to get possession of the relics of the famous Nicholas. There was great competition for them between Venice and Bari. The citizens of Bari finally, on May 9, 1087, carried them off from the lawful Greek custodians and their Mohammedan/Moslem masters. A new church was quickly built at Bari and Pope Bd. Urban II was present at the enshrining of the relics. Devotion to St. Nicholas now increased and many miracles were attributed to his intercession.
At Myra “the venerable body of the bishop, embalmed as it was in the good ointments of virtue exuded a sweet smelling myrrh, which kept it from corruption and proved a health giving remedy against sickness to the glory o f him who had glorified Jesus Christ, our true God.” The translation of the relics did not interrupt this phenomenon, and the “manna of St. Nicholas” is said to flow to this day. It was one of the great attractions which drew pilgrims to his tomb from all parts of Europe.
The greatest popularity of St. Nicholas is found neither in the eastern Mediterranean nor north-western Europe, great as that was, but in Russia. With St. Andrew the Apostle, he is patron of Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Church even observes the feast of his translation of his relics; so many Russian pilgrims came to Bari before the revolution that their government supported a church, hospital and hospice there. St. Nicholas is also patron of Greece, Apulia, Sicily, and Lorraine, of many cities in Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, and the Netherlands and dioceses (including Galway) and churches innumerable. Nicholas was so widely revered that more than 2,000 churches were named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England. At Rome the basilica of St. Nicholas in the Jail of Tully (in Carcere) was founded between the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh centuries.
In addition, he is named in the preparation of the Byzantine Mass.
Adoring Santa/St Nick with Baby Jesus
Please be sure to stop by next week to read part 2: Bishop Nicholas at the Council of Nicea.
(Part 3 will be how St Nicholas became Santa Claus; so, please stay tuned!)
Thanks & God bless.
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