|Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy, Miracle Worker, Holy Hierarch|
|Born||3rd century in Patara|
|Died||6 December 343 in Myra|
|Venerated in||All Christianity|
|Major shrine||St. Nicholas’ relics are held in a crypt in Bari, Italy, but his great work was done in Myra.|
|Attributes||St Nicholas is usually portrayed as a Bishop, in whatever manner is appropriate for a Bishop in that particular Church’s practices.|
|Patronage||In the West, St. Nicholas is a patron of sailors and thieves, because his relics were stolen by sailors from his tomb and transported to Bari, Italy. In the East, he is more remembered for his defense against the Arian heresy.|
Saint Nicholas (Greek: Νικόλαος, "Victory of the people") is the common name for Saint Nicholas of Myra, who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, but is now commonly known as Santa Claus. He lived in 4th century Myra in the Byzantine Empire's Lycia, the modern day Demre in the Antalya province of Turkey. This is as much as is generally known about him in the West.
This historical character was the inspiration for a mythical figure known as Nikolaus in Germany and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Flanders, which in turn was the inspiration for Santa Claus. Sinterklaas (a contracted form of Sint Nicolaas) is a major celebration in the Netherlands and in Flanders (see below). Among Orthodox Christians, the historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, children, and students in both Greece and Russia. He is also the patron saint of Barranquilla, Colombia and of Amsterdam.
Nicholas the clergyman
Nicholas of Myra (also Nikolaus) in Lycia, Asia Minor (lived c. 270 - 345/352), was a 4th century bishop and is a Christian saint. His feast day is December 6, presumably the date of his death. In the Netherlands 5 December is known as his feast: this is Sinterklaasavond, or St. Nicholas' Eve. Among Christians, he is also known as the "Miracle Worker". Several acts of kindness and miracles are attributed to him. Historical accounts often confuse him with the later Nicholas of Sion.
Nicholas was born in Asia Minor during the 3rd century at Patara in the province of Lycia, at a time when the region was Hellenistic in its culture and outlook. Nicholas became bishop of the city of Myra. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. He is said to have been born to relatively affluent Christian parents in Patara, Lycia, Asia Minor, Roman Empire where he also received his early schooling. According to some sources, his parents died while he was still a child, leaving a paternal uncle to care for him. Other sources place the death of his parents at the time he was already a young adult, leading him to a period of soul-searching which finally resulted in his uncle introducing him to Christianity. Whatever the reason, as a young adult and scholar, Nicholas moved to Myra to continue his studies and there the above-mentioned uncle introduced him to the local bishop. The latter is said to have seen potential in the youth and took Nicholas under his patronage. Nicholas received his ordination as a priest at an early age.
As the patron saint of sailors, Nicholas is claimed to have been a sailor or fisherman himself. More likely, however, is that one of his family businesses involved managing a fishing fleet. When his parents died, Nicholas still received his inheritance but is said to have given it away to charity. So was Saint Nicholas a working, albeit wealthy, man who complemented his day job with caring for his congregation, or was he a full-time bishop? The impressive list of deeds of Nicholas seems to point to the latter. This does not say, however, that his appointment to priest or bishop meant a complete rupture with his former life. More likely this was a gradual process.
Nicholas' early activities as a priest are said to have occurred 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 authorising 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 part Galerius (reigned 305 - 311) continued the persecution until 311 when he issued a general edict of toleration from his deathbed. The persecution of 303 - 311 is considered to be the longest in the history of the Empire. Nicholas survived this period although his activities at the time are uncertain.
Following Galerius' death his surviving co-ruler Licinius (reigned 307 - 324) mostly tolerated Christians. As a result their community was allowed to further develop, and the various bishops who acted as their leaders managed to concentrate religious, social and political influence as well as wealth in their hands. In many cases they acted as the heads of their respective cities. It is apparently in this period that Nicholas rose to become bishop of Myra. Judging from tradition, he was probably well loved and respected in his area, mostly as a result of his charitable activities. As with other bishops of the time, Nicholas' popularity would serve to ensure his position and influence during and after this period.
The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to him, among them one temple of Artemis (also known as Diana). Because the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas' feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.
Nicholas is also known for coming to the defence 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.
Bishop Nicholas at the First Ecumenical Council
In 324 Licinius was defeated in a war against his Western co-ruler Constantine I of the Roman Empire (reigned 306 - 337). The end of the war found the Roman Empire unified under the rule of Constantine. Instead of tolerance, his policies towards Christians consisted of active support. Under his patronage the Christian church experienced an age of prosperity. But the relative peace of his reign brought to the forefront the internal conflict within contemporary Christianity. One of the apparent main reasons of this conflict was the failure to agree to a commonly accepted concept about God in general and Jesus in particular. At this time the teachings of Arius in Alexandria, Egypt were gaining popular support but also attracting great opposition. They would form the basis of Arianism. Emerging fanaticism in both opposing factions only resulted in spreading tumult across the Empire.
Deciding to address the problem as a matter of the state, Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea which also was the first Ecumenical council in 325. The number of attendees at the Council is uncertain with Eusebius of Caesarea reporting as few as 250 and Athanasius of Alexandria as many as 318. In any case Nicholas is usually counted among them and was noted as an opponent of Arianism.
A later writer claimed that after Arius had presented his case against Jesus' divinity to the Council, Nicholas hit Arius in the face out of indignation. Nicholas was kicked out of the Council for this offence, and jailed as well. However, according to this account, that night the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to many of the bishops of the Council, telling them to forgive Nicholas, for he had done it out of love for her Son. They released Nicholas and allowed him back into the process the next day.
The council lasted from May 20 to June 19, 325 and resulted in the declaration of the Nicene Creed and the formal condemnation of Arianism. The books of Arius and his followers were condemned to be burned but the execution of this decision was left at the hands of each bishop for their respective territories. To what point this decision was followed remains uncertain.
Following this apparent victory to his faction Nicholas returned to Myra. He is applauded by later Christian writers for keeping Myra free of Arianism. But the decisions of the council failed to stop the spread of Arianism. In fact the tides soon turned and in his later years Arianism managed to win favour with Constantine. In fact Constantine was baptised by Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian bishop who had also attended the council, shortly before his death on May 22, 337. Constantine was succeeded by his three surviving sons: Constantine II of the Roman Empire (reigned 337 - 340), Constantius II (reigned 337 - 361) and Constans (reigned 337 - 350). Constantius originally received the Eastern part of the Empire but the death of his brothers left the entire Empire under his control. During his reign he strongly favoured Arianism by seeking to place Arian bishops in most positions. There is no indication that Nicholas was affected by these policies and he remained in his position till his death. This lack of disturbance by the Arian Emperor has been seen as indicating the strong support Nicholas had gained among the people of his territory. According to this reasoning not even Constantius would risk a possible revolt by removing a popular bishop.
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 the saint 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 face of the historical saint
Whereas the importance of relics and the business associated with pilgrims and patron saints caused the remains of most saints to be spread over several churches in several countries, Saint Nicholas is unique in that most of his bones have been preserved in one spot: his grave crypt in Bari. Although jealously guarded and kept from prying eyes of scientists, especially with the still continuing miracle of the manna, the Roman Catholic Church allowed for one scientific survey of the bones: In the late 1950s, during a restoration of the chapel, it allowed a team of their own scientists to photograph and measure the contents of the crypt grave.
In the summer of 2005, the report of this measurements was sent to a forensic laboratory in England. The review of the data revealed that the historical Saint Nicholas was barely five foot in height (while not exactly small, still shorter than average, even for his time) and had a broken nose. This last may seem strange for a man of "saintly behavior", but would fit perfectly with Nicholas' sometimes violent nature as reported at the First Ecumenical Council
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 colourful 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 how a terrible famine struck the island and 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 but 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 opening 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 Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead. 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 St. Nicholas.
It should be noted perhaps that 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 each year sweated out a clear watery liquid, called Manna, which of course 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. So even up to today, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6th (the Saint's birthday). 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. Still, neither the church nor any scientists have ever tried to analyse the fluid, so truth still lies in the eye of the believer.
One of the most amazing feats of Saint Nicholas however was that he lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully in his own bed. At a time where most saints earned their place in heaven by dying for their faith in manners most unusual and cruel, this definitely made him stand out (together with Saint Martin, who also died of natural old age) and definitely aided to his 'popularity' in every way of the word.
Formal veneration of the saint
Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favourite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbours. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea", often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianised version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognisable saints and December 6 finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all 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 time made Saint Nicholas a 'popular' saint in every sense of the word, more than all his miracles combined.
In late medieval England, on St 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 6th to anonymously deposit baskets of food and clothes at the doorsteps of the needy. According to another source, On December 6th every sailor or ex-sailor of the Low Countries (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbour 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 ... or Santa Claus... This, and also his miracle of him 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 (see above).He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Eastern Roman Emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.
The holy person of St. Nicholas is a popular subject portrayed on countless Eastern Orthodox icons, particularly Russian ones.
- "Icons are quite literally meant to be 'Windows Into Heaven' and to instil in the viewer an attitude of prayerful reflection on the Divine. In Russia icons were not only displayed in churches, but are given the place of honour in many homes, thus serving as a daily reminder to live in strict accordance with Christian virtue, values and duties." (Source: The InstaPLANET Cultural Universe).
So beloved is St. Nicholas by Russians, one commonly heard saying is "if God dies, at least we'll still have St. Nicholas."
In Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing all the insignia of this profession: a red bishop's cloak, a red miter and a bishop's staff (crozier). Due to the episode with the three dowries, he is shown holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three golden balls. Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images will be completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (the three slaughtered children he resurrected).
In a strange twist, the three golden balls referring to the dowry affair are sometimes misinterpreted as being oranges or other fruits. As in the Low Countries oranges are generally believed to come from Spain, this led to the belief that the Saint lives in Spain and comes to visit every winter bringing oranges and other 'wintery' fruits.
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, Anglo-Canadian, and British Father Christmas derives from this festivity, 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 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.
Celebration in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Luxembourg
In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot, called Nikolaus-Stiefel, outside the front door on the night of December 5 to December 6. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good. If they were not, they will have charcoal in their boots instead. 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-behaviour basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.
But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat, or sometimes actually eat the children for misbehaviour. Knecht Rupert 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 behaviour 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 who acts as a counterweight to the ominous Knecht Ruprecht (čert). In Slovenia Saint Nikolaus (Miklavž) is accompanied by an angel and a devil (parkelj) corresponding Austrian Krampuss. In Luxembourg "Kleeschen" is accompanied by the "Houseker" a frightening helper wearing a brown monk's habit.
Celebration in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' eve is the occasion for gift-giving, when his alleged birthday is celebrated. In this case, roles are reversed, though, in that Sinterklaas is the one who gives the presents.
In recent years, Christmas (along with Santa Claus) has been pushed by shopkeepers as another gift-giving festival, with some success, although, especially for young children, Saint Nicholas' eve is still much more important than Christmas.
On the evening of December 5, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child that has been good in the past year (in practice to all children). Sinterklaas wears a red bishop's dress including a red mitre, rides a white horse (called Amerigo) over the rooftops and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (black Petes).
Celebration in Belgium
Originally Sinterklaas or Sint-Nikolaas was only celebrated in Flanders and the Netherlands the way described above, but now he is celebrated in Wallonia in the same way. The celebrating of Saint-Nicholas is mostly the same as in the Netherlands, but in Belgium the children receive their presents on the 6th of December. Children have to put their shoes by the stove the evening of the 5th of December and the next morning, they find their presents. This tradition was still alive thirty years ago in the Catholic south of The Netherlands.
Note that Saint Nicholas has been celebrated in Belgium for centuries - there is even a city called Sint-Niklaas - but, like every folkloristic thing in Belgium, there might be small differences, and generally in the eastern part of the provinces West Flanders and East Flanders Saint Nicholas is not celebrated, but instead children receive presents from Sint Maarten (Saint Martin) on the 11th of November. Saint Nicholas is also celebrated by the university students in the city of Liège.
Celebration in France
In France, Saint Nicolas is only celebrated this way in the eastern part of the country (Alsace, Lorraine regions) and less strongly in the northern part of the country (Nord département). He is accompanied by "Père Fouettard", carrying a bunch of sticks with which naughty children are beaten.
Celebration in Portugal
In Portugal, St. Nicholas (São Nicolau) has been celebrated since the Middle Ages in Guimarães as the patron saint of high-school students, in the so called Nicolinas, a group of festivities that occur from November 29th to December 7th each year.
Benjamin Britten cantata
Benjamin Britten wrote a Christmas cantata commissioned by three public schools. This tells the story of Saint Nicholas and his Christian exploits. This is for small orchestra, three choirs, a tenor soloist (St. Nicholas), and a treble (young Saint Nicholas).
Metamorphosis in Demre
The metamorphosis of Saint Nicolas into the commercially more interesting Santa Claus, which took several ages in Europe and America, has recently been reenacted in the Saint's home town, the city of Demre. This modern Turkish city is built on the ruins of ancient Myra. As St. Nicholas is the most important Russian Orthodox saint, the city attracts many Russian tourists. A solemn bronze statue of the Saint by the Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, donated by the Russian government in 2000, had been given a prominent place on the square in front of the medieval church of St. Nicholas. In 2005, mayor Suleyman Topcu had the statue replaced by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus statue, because he wanted the central statue to be more familiar to visitors from all over the world. Protests from the Russian government against the disgrace were only successful to the extent that the Russian statue returned, without its original high pedestal, in a corner near the church.
- Encounter with a celebrity saint by Khaled Diab
- St. Nicholas site
- Saint Nicholas history
- St. Nicholas of Myra
- St. Nicholas, the man and the Russian icon
- A timeline of St. Nicholas's life and legend
- More about Holland's Sinterklaas Celebration
- Statues in Demre
- Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus