By Jim Forest
We can speak of Saint Nicholas in both the past and present tense.
In the past tense he was a Christian bishop of the fourth century living in Asia Minor, stories of whose sanctity became so widespread and legendary that he was added to the church’s calendar of the saints. His commemoration occurs on December 6th. But we can also speak of him in the present tense as being part of what Saint Paul calls “the cloud of witnesses” who not only inspire us but who are alive in Christ and can become one of our guardians. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.
Nicholas wrote no books nor have any of his sermons or letters survived, nor did he die a martyr’s death. Even so, few saints have been the object of such universal affection. He is seen as a model pastor, a protector of the poor and defenseless, of prisoners, orphans and seafarers, a guardian of children, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. He is remembered as a brave defender of orthodox Christian teaching. He is also the patron saint of many port cities, Amsterdam among them. Thousands of churches have been named in his memory. Probably no other saint has been so often represented in icons except Mary, the Mother of God. “Having fulfilled the Gospel of Christ … you have appeared in truth as a most holy shepherd to the world,” the Orthodox Church sings on his feast day, December 6.
Nicholas was born in Patara, near the modern town of Gelemish, about 270 years after Christ’s birth and died not far away, in the port city of Myra, on the 6th of December in the year 343 AD. Both Patara and Myra are on the southern coast of what today is Turkey. In Nicholas’s time, the region was part of the Greek-speaking world known as Lycia. Nicholas’s parents died in an epidemic when their son was still a child. Nicholas’s uncle, also named Nicholas, was Patara’s bishop. It was he who took charge of his nephew’s upbringing and education.
Because he grew up in a port city, in a children’s book I wrote about Nicholas I imagine him as a child listening to sailors telling stories of mermaids, sea monsters and distant exotic places. It may well be that one of his early ambitions was to become a sailor, but instead he became the heavenly guardian of sailors. Thus, according to one narrative, while on his way back to Myra after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the ship he had boarded encountered a severe storm. Everyone would have drowned had it not been for his prayers. One often finds paintings of Nicholas protecting ships struggling against storm waves.
As no biography of Nicholas was written until centuries after he died, much of Nicholas’s life is known more from legend than from contemporary sources. These stories, turned into iconographic images, often serve as a border for icons of the saint.
The most popular story about him concerns his anonymous help to a family that had no dowry for their three daughters. No doubt his uncle had explained the possible dire consequences — desperate women driven by destitution into prostitution. Nicholas was moved to make a personal response. Unknown even to his uncle, he secretly gave money from his small inheritance to help, three times throwing a small sack containing several gold coins through an open window while everyone in Patara was sleeping.
Over the centuries, Nicholas’s life was embroidered with many legends, yet several stories about him seem solidly historical. One of these relates how, after being made a bishop, Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese when several citizens from Myra came with urgent news: in his absence the governor of the city, Eustathius, had condemned three men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the outskirts of the city, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he rushed to the place of execution where he found a crowd of people and the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed from their bonds. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Later the governor confessed his sin and sought the saint’s forgiveness. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.
During the persecutions of Diocletian at the end of the third century, Nicholas was among the many thousands imprisoned and tortured, but even in chains carried on his pastoral and teaching work. He was a participant in the First Ecumenical Council, held near Constantinople at Nicea in 325 AD. One story relates that he was so outraged by the heretic Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ, that he slapped Arius in the face, for which violent action Nicholas was briefly excluded from the Council.
During a devastating famine that hit his region in 342 AD, Nicholas used all his resources to buy grain, thus saving the local people from starvation.
Some Nicholas stories seem fanciful legend, for example his bringing back to life three children who had been murdered by an evil innkeeper and cut into pieces that were being boiled in a soup pot. While we may find such legends far from historical, they serve to dramatize Nicholas’s special commitment to young people, which doubtless was true.
After his death in 343 AD, Nicholas’s tomb in Myra became a place of pilgrimage. In the spring of 1087, with war threatening the safety of that region, sailors from Bari, a port on the southeast coast of Italy, removed Nicholas’s bones and brought them home with them. A great church was built over the crypt in Bari to honor a saint who had been a friend to the poor, rescued children and prisoners, and saved sailors and famine victims. Ever since their translation, the relics of Saint Nicholas have made Bari one of Europe’s great pilgrimage centers. To this very day many thousands of pilgrims come every year. The bones of Saint Nicholas are reported to exude a myrrh-like liquid that smells like rose water. The liquid is collected once a year, on May 9. Pilgrims from different parts of the globe distribute the myrrh, diluted with blessed water, among relatives and friends to bring comfort and bodily and spiritual healing.
Because his feast day, December 6, occurs just nineteen days before Christmas, in some countries the two feasts have become connected. In medieval England, parishes held Yuletide celebrations on Saint Nicholas’ Day. Today the feast of Saint Nicholas is still celebrated in many places.
The feast of St. Nicholas survived even in post-Reformation Holland, where
“de sint” is known as “Sinterklaas.” With great fanfare he arrives annually in Dutch cities and larger towns where crowds of children and their parents sing traditional songs of welcome.
In the seventeenth century, Sinterklaas traveled with Dutch settlers to Nieuw Amsterdam. By the time Nieuw Amsterdam became New York, the name “Sinterklaas” had undergone a small but interesting change, becoming Santa Claus. But in America he lost his bishop’s robes and wandered away from his own feast day into Christmas, in the process becoming the patron saint not of the afflicted but of the consumer.
Saint Nicholas, pray for us!
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1811 GJ Alkmaars
text as of 20 November 2018
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The illustrations by Vladislav Andrejev come from Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins, a children’s book by Jim Forest published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. See https://jimandnancyforest.com/2015/04/saint-nicholas-and-the-nine-gold-coins/
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