There is hardly a more popular saint than Nicholas, bishop of Myra, patron of Sicily, Greece, Russia and numerous cities. Within the Universal Church, in both Latin and Eastern rites, hundreds of churches bear his name.
Well-known as the special patron of children, persons in over 200 occupations and states of life claim St Nicholas’ patronage and intercession notably: archers, attorneys, bakers, bankers, barrel-makers, butchers, captives and prisoners, choristers, cobblers and shoe-shiners, dock workers, firefighters, florists, grocers, judges and the falsely accused, mariners, merchants, millers, navigators, newlyweds, notaries, perfumers, pilgrims, poets, police, paupers, pawnbrokers, shipwreck victims, tanners, teachers and pupils, soldiers, weavers, and wine vendors. Not to mention pirates, prostitutes, thieves and robbers.
Parara, a town in Lycia (now Turkey) had a large Christian enclave. Sometime in the late 200s Nicholas was born there to Christian parents and grew to be a kind-hearted young man. Many legends have gathered around him but it would appear that the most famous of his youthful exploits actually occurred:
A widowed merchant lost his livelihood. Forced to pawn his valuables in order to survive, he could provide no dowries for his three daughters, without which they could not marry. Their father feared that they’d be compelled to turn to a life of shame in order to live, a course commonly followed at the time.
One morning a bag of gold coins was found by the surprised father, having been tossed down the barren chimney the night before. It was enough for the eldest daughter’s dowry. The next morning the father found another bag of gold for his second daughter.
Staying up the third night, the grateful father caught Nicholas, riding his horse late at night, in the act of lobbing a third bag of gold down the merchant’s chimney. Hearing of the father’s desperation Nicholas had sought to follow the Savior’s rule about doing good in secret.
This is the reason three gold balls are found in the coat of arms of the Medici family, and often seen hanging above pawnbroker’s establishments.
In time, Nicholas was ordained a priest and consecrated bishop of Myra, another city in Lycia. Toward the end of the persecution of Diocletian he was apprehended by Roman authorities and cast into prison. He was released with the accession of Constantine in 312.
Bishop Nicholas is said to have attended the 1st Ecumenical Council in Nicæa in 325, called to deal with the teaching of the priest, Arius, denying the Blessed Trinity. It’s said that, while sitting with the bishops in council, when Nicholas heard Arius deny the divinity of Christ by claiming the Son to be a created being, the bishop, outraged at the insult to Jesus, leapt from his seat and gave Arius the back of his hand.
Another tale has Bishop Nicholas falling asleep during the long debates at Nicæa. He saw a ship adrift in a storm, the sailors within slamming against the gunwales, unable to control the helm. Nicholas, realizing the danger, made the Sign of the Cross over them. Immediately the sea was calmed. The sailors blessed him for interceding with God for their safety.
Nicholas awoke to find that his episcopal colleagues had voted against Arius, affirming
the truth that God is One in Three Divine Persons; the Son being “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” The truth thus proclaimed, Nicholas understood his dream to mean that the Church, the Barque of Peter, was safe.
For centuries, in the Netherlands and other North European countries, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch) arrives by ship on his feast day, December 6th, wearing a bishop’s liturgical vestments of alb and cincture, with stole, cope and miter all in red. Carrying a crozier he mounts a white horse to lead a parade through town. The night before, children leave a shoe by the fireplace or window, often with hay and carrots within for the saint’s horse. The saint then leaves presents and candy for good children but, for naughty rascals, the saint’s assistant, Black Peter, dark with soot from chimneys, leaves a lump of coal or a bundle of birch twigs.
Readers seeking more information about St Nicholas will find many sites online devoted to the saint but the best, certainly the most complete, is the St Nicholas Center, found at www.stnicholascenter.org,
Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He answers comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.