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St. Nicholas: The Christmas Saint

Updated on November 27, 2020
Stella Kaye profile image

Stella is interested in famous literary and historical figures and has written a few brief biographies of some of them

Saint Nicholas with a Long Beard in Traditional White Clothing with a Red Cross Mitre a Crosier.

The attire associated with St. Nicholas
The attire associated with St. Nicholas | Source

St.Nicholas, the Benevolent.

The feast day of St. Nicholas which falls on December 6th is largely overshadowed by advent, its significance in the Christian calendar often forgotten in the hectic 'tis the season to be jolly' run-up to Christmas. St. Nicholas has been incorporated into modern-day Christmas celebrations but prior to becoming the familiar Santa of today, St. Nicholas was a well-loved saint throughout Christendom especially in the East where he is still patron saint of Russia. He is mainly known as the patron saint of sailors and children, but also of pawnbrokers, clerks and bakers. He is attributed with the ability to protect against fire. A very busy Saint indeed!

His symbols are an anchor (representing sailors) and an apple, as a small gift for a child. He is usually depicted wearing his Episcopal robes and a mitre. He carries a crook and of course, there is the typical saintly nimbus, or halo, encompassing his head. He holds three purses of gold, or three golden balls (hence the pawnbrokers' sign) and is accompanied by three small boys.

Little is known of his actual life but he was supposedly the Bishop of Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor in the early fourth century, and is said to have been present at the Council of Nicea in 325 A D. Nicholas gained a reputation for being an anonymous bringer of gifts. Children would leave shoes outside their houses to be filled with small trinkets and sweetmeats, knowing that their kindly benefactor did not like to be seen. In time the shoes became stockings, perhaps because they held more items, and ultimately the custom spread into Europe.

There are several ancient tales of this fascinating saint, and although perhaps not widely known they are delightful nonetheless:

A proud mother in Patara had just given birth to a healthy son, and the entire household gathered round to admire him. "What a fine boy!" they shouted in admiration "all he needs is a good name."

"He shall be called Nicholas," declared his mother "and now we will give him his first bath."

As the babe was laid gently in a basin cries of amazement went up from the onlookers. The infant stood bolt upright in the water and with hands tightly clasped he lifted his eyes heavenwards. "It is truly a miracle," gasped his Mother, "don't touch him." For two hours the child remained transfixed and afterwards when he had eventually been bathed he refused to suckle at the breast until after the sun had set.

"Another miracle! How could he have known it was a fast day? he must have divine knowledge," the nurse declared. Here was a child who observed fast days before one morsel of food had ever touched his lips and who had seen heaven in the very hour of his birth.

Nicholas grew up, enjoying a privileged existence in one of the richest families in Patara. He had food and toys in abundance but never became spoiled. And when he had inherited his parents' fortune he decided to spend it on others rather than himself.

Nicholas had no need of worldly treasures, preferring to store up more priceless treasures in heaven as the scriptures suggest, and so he became a servant of God. He travelled to the Holy Land, sailing to Alexandria. During the voyage a violent tempest threatened to overwhelm the fragile vessel and the sailors abandoned all hope. But in the midst of the storm Nicholas knelt in prayer. "Praying will do us no good, we are lost!" The Captain shouted. Just then the wind abated and the tumultuous seas were calmed.

"Nothing is ever past praying for." said Nicholas.

The crew were overjoyed "What is your name? We must remember to invoke it again when faced with catastrophe at sea." And so Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors.

Children too, came to adore Nicholas for he had a love of all young things. Here is a tale of how he won their devotion:

Once when Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, three boys lost their way and came to an Inn. "May we stay the night? We need to sleep." they begged the innkeeper.

"But of course," he replied, “come in, you will soon be sleeping without dreaming."

But the innkeeper, whom they had trusted, robbed them of their clothes and possessions while they slept, and spying-their pink, naked bodies he began to think wickedly to himself. What a shame they are not sucking-pigs they look so pink and tender, they would make such delicious pickled pork! No sooner thought than the evil deed was done and the three boys were lying pickled in a salting tub, truly sleeping a long dreamless sleep.

Nicholas awoke that night from a troubled dream in which he had seen all that had happened earlier at the inn. He rose and donned his mitre and robes, then all next day he wandered in the woods before calling at the inn he had seen in his vision."I have lost my way in the forest" he said to the innkeeper can I come in to rest?"

"Certainly, Your Worship, and would you require some sustenance? Some beef or veal or a slice of ham perhaps?"

"Oh no, replied Nicholas, but I would really like some of that pickled pork you have in that tub over there."

The Innkeeper turned white.

"What's wrong?" Nicholas asked," is the pork not quite salted enough? Perhaps it's because you only pickled it last night,"

"Mercy! Mercy!" cried the innkeeper, confessing to his wickedness. Then Nicholas went over to the tub and raising his eyes to heaven made the sign of the cross. Three sleepy heads emerged from the briny water" Oh. how well we have slept!" they declared.

The innkeeper begged for forgiveness and Nicholas knelt down and prayed for him." No-one is ever past praying for." he said. And that is how Nicholas became the Patron Saint of children.

The next tale shows how Nicholas decided to distribute his wealth among his fellow citizens:

A poor nobleman lived in Patara; he had three beautiful daughters but sadly could not find husbands for them since they had no dowries. He would have to take them to the slave market. One night the nobleman was sitting at his open window when a bag full of money flew in, enough for a dowry for his eldest daughter. The same thing happened the next evening and he was overjoyed to be able to provide a dowry for his second daughter too. The following evening the nobleman didn't believe for a moment that the same thing would happen a third time, but as he sat in his window seat he saw a cloaked figure ready to throw another bag of golden coins.

"Why do you do this?" he asked, pulling off the cloak and realising it was Nicholas, the wealthiest man in the city. "Why do you wish to keep such generosity a secret?"

"Please tell no one, it is the way I prefer things to be." Nicholas replied, and the nobleman agreed. But secrets always have a way of leaking out, and the nobleman's three daughters wanted to know where their dowries had come from so news of his benevolence became known.

Although St. Nicholas was a bishop of the early church, he was never one of the saints which were adopted by the Church of England. Traditionally he delivered presents to European children; he is the Patron Saint of German and Dutch boys and girls, and in some parts his vigil is still held. The custom was for someone to dress in Bishop's clothing on the night of 5th December and distribute small gifts to children who were "good." It is this continental tradition which was carried across the Atlantic by Dutch immigrants and has now been transformed into the English custom of Santa's appearance on Christmas Eve.

St. Nicholas originally rode on a white horse, but when he became the Santa of today, the horse somehow became transmogrified into a team of reindeer and a sleigh (easier for him to carry more presents perhaps?) His popularity as "Santa Claus" (an Americanisation of the Dutch dialect "Sante klaas" actually meaning Saint Nicholas) only emerged when the cult of "Santa" arrived in Europe from the America (about 1840). Thus these initially quite different characters have become merged with the passage of time.

Santa Claus wears breeches, tunic boots and cap (not to be confused with yet another character, Father Christmas or "Sir Christmas" as he was formerly known, who is usually depicted wearing a long, red robe with a fur-trimmed hood) Father Christmas is one of the oldest figures to be associated with the festive season, although he never had any real religious associations, and survived even the puritans' attempts to suppress Christmas. Of course, nowadays, children are not concerned with the finer details of Santa's attire or the fact that he is a combination of three completely different characters as long as he comes bearing gifts. And, as any mother will tell you, it is not just "good" children who expect those gifts!

So this Christmas when you hang up your stocking, remember this magnanimous saint who loved to be charitable in secret. Perhaps nowadays with Christmas being the most materialistic time of year, we can all learn this lesson from St. Nicholas that there can be far more joy in giving than in receiving.

Saint Nikolas Church, Demre Myra Turkey

A depiction of St. Nicholas
A depiction of St. Nicholas | Source

A Rhyme for Nicholas (anon)

Nicholas, Saint of children,
Loves to spend his wealth
On pretty toys for girls and boys,
Leaving them by stealth.
The wind in the chimney
Hears children call:
"Bring me this Saint Nicholas!
Bring me that, Saint Nicholas!
A silky scarf,
A bag of sweets,
A big gold ball."

Nicholas Saint of sailors,
Children of the sea,
When their sails are torn by gales
Close at hand is he.
The wind in the rigging
Hears the sailors cry:
"Save us here, old Nicholas!
Save us there, good Nicholas!
Saint of sailors,
Bring us safe
Home, high and dry!"

Modern Day Santa Bearing Gifts

The modern day figure of Santa is a compilation of characters
The modern day figure of Santa is a compilation of characters | Source

The Story of St. Nicholas

A Children's Version of the Story

© 2015 Stella Kaye


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