St Nicholas was born during the third century in the village of Patara in Asia Minor. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra, Lycia while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children and his concern for sailors and ships.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith and was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests and deacons that there was no room for the real criminals i.e murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. He died 6 December 343 AD in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church (Church of the tomb of St Nicholas). A unique relic, called manna was known to have formed in his grave. This liquid substance was said to have healing powers which resulted in many pilgrimages, over the centuries, to the church.
St Nicholas was a secret and generous giver of gifts and some believe him to be the model for Santa Claus.
One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value, a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would 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. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home, providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. 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. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. Thus St. Nicholas was known as a gift giver.
Another story tells of three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. In France the story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, lured and captured by an evil butcher. St Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families. Thus St Nicholas is the patron and protector of children.
Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. When he was young, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked as he sought to more deeply experience Jesus’ life, passion and resurrection. Returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. As a result, St Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers.
Other stories tell of Nicholas saving his people from famine, sparing the lives of those innocently accused and much more. He did many kind and generous deeds in secret, expecting nothing in return. Within a century of his death he was celebrated as a saint.
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as a protector and helper of those in need.
He was a defender of orthodoxy and because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is called “the Wonderworker.”