Let’s begin with a prayer:
Almighty God, who in thy love didst give to thy servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray thee, that thy Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
St. Nick was an actual real, live person, and he became famous as the bishop of a town that was then known as Myra, but which is now called Demre, in Turkey. If you look at Turkey on a map, it’s sort of shaped like a lima bean lying on its back. Well, Demre or Myra is at the bottom of that bean, slightly left of center. It’s right on the Mediterranean, and until the 1920s, there was a huge Christian population here. But at that time, Greece and Turkey did a huge population exchange, which saw Greek Muslims swapped for Turkish Christians, and as a result this entire area became deserted. There are whole villages in the surrounding hillsides that are ghost towns. But until that happened, the descendants of the people shepherded by St. Nicholas had clung tenaciously to the faith in the diocese he had run.
St. Nicholas was born in 270 in Patara, Turkey, which is now just a bunch of ruins, but at the time was a flourishing commercial port in the key Roman province of Lycia. And even though Patara is a dead city, it’s still a featured beach on the Turkish Riviera. So we can picture the saint as a boy running along the beach and swimming in the ocean. Who knows? Maybe he even body surfed.
His parents were ethnic Greeks, which made him a Greek, as well. And it is said that he was always a very pious boy. Religion really took with him almost from the beginning, and because Our Lord spoke about the importance of fasting, St. Nick would fast each and every Wednesday and Friday. Again, this is all from a very young age. He also made pilgrimages to Egypt and the Holy Land. We have to imagine he was too young to go without his parents, so they must have been very faithful themselves.
When he just a youth, his parents died during an outbreak of some illness, and he followed Our Lord’s admonition to the rich young man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” Afterward, his Uncle Nicholas, who was bishop of Patara, raised him. Seeing his nephew as an ideal cleric, he gave him the tonsure and ordained him to the minor order of lector and then later bestowed on him holy orders. Eventually, while still a young adult, he became a bishop like his uncle, but in nearby Demre or Myra, as we know it.
He was a short man, barely 5’ tall, and he had a broken nose. Why that was, we don’t know. There is not unreasonable speculation that he was imprisoned for the Faith at some point during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution, but he was not a martyr. In fact, he died on this day sometime between 343 and 352, depending on your source. As a result, he not only lived during the time of the Council of Nicaea, but he is said to have been a participant. However, none of the old lists of attending bishops mention him.
Anyway, this is what we know for sure about St. Nicholas or Santa Claus. As for the rest, it is hard to discern fact from fiction.
The most famous story relating to him concerns a poor man with three daughters. Because this gentleman could not afford their dowries, and because there were no employment opportunities open to most young women other than the world’s oldest profession, it likely meant they would end up on the streets as practitioners of that profession.
Well, Bishop Nicholas heard of this, and he wanted to help, but he also knew the impoverished father was proud and wouldn’t want to accept his help in broad daylight. So late one night, he snuck to the window of the man’s house and tossed in three small sacks of gold. Other versions of the story say he dropped them down the family’s chimney, which is where we get that part about Santa Claus coming into our houses on Christmas Eve that way. And it’s likely that the chimney part came in when parents in northern climes were trying to explain to young children who had never experienced warmth in December why anyone would have their windows open in the middle of winter.
There are different variations of the story, that he threw the gold in as a one-time thing, that it happened over the course of three nights, that it happened over the course of three years, that sort of thing. What marks the latter stories is that the father lied in wait on the third night or the third year and discovered his benefactor, who told him to thank God, not him.
Since pawnbrokers exchange money for hocked goods, those in Bari put paintings of three gold on the signs in front of their shops as a way of identifying themselves for people who couldn't read. Over time, those coins were mistaken for heads. This led to the above story being twisted into St. Nicholas’ resurrecting three children, after they’d been killed and pickled by a butcher, who was going to carve them up and cook their remains into pies a la Sweeny Todd. But, in any event, this is why he’s patron of bakers and children.
Leaving aside the gruesome corruption of the core story, our beloved bishop became associated with anonymous gift giving, which is why we say a certain someone left our Christmas gifts.
Another legend concerns a famine Myra was said to have had around 311-312. There was a boat at the docks, and the saint asked the captain for some of the wheat that was on board, even though it was destined for the Emperor. You can imagine, the skipper wasn’t too keen on the request, but after St. Nicholas promised he would take the blame if they got in trouble, they agreed. When they got to the capital of the Eastern empire at what is today called Istanbul, the weight of the cargo on board was exactly what it was before St. Nicholas had come and spoken with them. This is in spite of the fact that Nicholas took with him two years’ worth of wheat. This is why he is the patron saint of sailors.
After his death, he was buried in his cathedral. However, in the late eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire -- which was really the Eastern Roman Empire -- it fell to the Muslims, and the area around Myra was one where control went back and forth for a while. Well, one day, sailors from the town of Bari, Italy, went into the cathedral, opened his tomb and took about half of his skeleton, really the principle half, the skull and all the major bones. The Muslims at the time were desecrating the tombs of lesser known saints and scattering their bones to the dogs. Why wouldn’t they eventually do the same to the relics of this famous Christian hero who was hugely venerated all over the eastern Mediteranean (and Bari is almost as close to Greece as it is to Rome). If you look on a map of Italy, it’s just above the heel on the Italian “boot,” if you will, on the Aegean Sea.
Then about 25 years later, sometime during the First Crusade, so 1096-1099, Venetian sailors took the rest of his remains back to their city and built a church to house them called San Nicolò al Lido, or St. Nicholas on Lido Island, as we might say it.
Each year, the relics in Bari exhude what the Greeks call “manna,” a clear, watery liquid that smells like roses. This is also called myrrh, and these waters are held to have miraculously curative powers. So many miracles have been wrought by the sick being touched with this manna that our saint is often called St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. You can obtain a vial of this myrrh yourself by writing to the cathedral of San Nicolò at Bari. Of course, you should include a cash donation of some kind to cover the expense of the vial and postage, but it’s anyone’s for the asking. I mean, the extract is so copious, it fills up a flask each and every year. Some say the liquid is simply seepage from the nearby sea, since the saint’s sepulchre is below sea level, but then how does it smell like roses? Also, how did it happen at both Myra and Bari and not at Venice, since the tomb there is at or partially below sea level, as well?
Today, possibly seeing the tourist dollars it’s losing, Turkey’s Islamic government is asking for Italy to return both sets of St. Nicholas’ remains. However, given its treatment of its Christian population and of the Greek Orthodox Church, which is headquartered there, I personally think Italy is the safest place to keep the remains.
In any event, his feast, which we celebrate today, is a big deal throughout Europe. In fact, today is the main gift day in many European countries, particularly what are called the Low Countries, namely the Netherlands and Belgium. But in all places, children leave out their shoes, and in them, they find bags of gold foil covered chocolate coins or an orange or the like. Or they find small gifts for themselves in the stocking attached to the mantle.
He’s not a big deal in France, Spain, the Scandinavian countries, but in every other European country, devotion to him is second only to Mary.