St. Nicholas

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Related to St. Nicholas: St. Nicholas Day, St. Nicholas of Myra

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas lived in the late third and early fourth centuries. Very little is known about his life. By the Middle Ages, however, he had become one of Europe's most venerated non-biblical saints. In France and Germany more than two thousand churches carry the saint's name, bearing silent testimony to the intensity of past devotions. St. Nicholas was the Christmas season gift bringer in parts of northern Europe. His legend and the customs surrounding it traveled to America with European immigrants. In the United States St. Nicholas was transformed into Santa Claus. His new American name evolved from his old Dutch name, Sinterklass. Although Nicholas's popularity has declined considerably since medieval times, some Europeans still celebrate his feast day, which falls on December 6 (see St. Nicholas's Day).

Life of St. Nicholas

Nicholas was born in Asia Minor, a region that later became the nation of Turkey. Most scholars believe he was born around 280 and died around 343. He pursued a religious career and eventually became bishop of Myra, a town in Asia Minor now called Demre. Some believe that he attended the Council of Nicea in 325 important meeting of the leaders of the early Christian Church produced the Nicene Creed, a fundamental statement of the Christian faith. Other researchers point out that his name does not appear on the roster of those in attendance until the Middle Ages, when his cult was at the height of its popularity. Although next to nothing is known for certain about the saint's life, many legends credit him with miraculous deeds.

St. Nicholas and the Three Maidens

One of the oldest and most popular of these legends tells how young Nicholas saved three sisters from an evil fate. The sisters had all reached the age at which young women marry. Unfortunately, their father could not provide any of them with a dowry so he planned to sell them into prostitution. When Nicholas found out about this he took a small bag of gold to the family's house after it got dark and threw it in an open window (some say he threw it down the chimney). The father gratefully seized the gold and used it to pay for the dowry of the eldest girl. Nicholas provided dowries for the second and third daughters in the same fashion. The third time Nicholas pulled this trick the girls' father was waiting for him. When the bag of gold came flying into the house he ran outside, discovered Nicholas, and thanked him for his generosity. Nicholas asked the man not to tell others of his good deed.

Some writers believe this legend eventually gave rise to several Christmas season customs, including the tradition whereby St. Nicholas distributes gifts on his feast day. In addition, the custom of putting out shoes or hanging stockings by the fireplace to receive the saint's, and later Santa's, gifts might also have been inspired by this story. This legend achieved such widespread fame and popularity that the three bags of gold became an emblem of the saint. Sometimes artists simplified their images of the saint by depicting the bags of gold as three gold balls. Eventually, the three gold balls became the symbol for a pawnbroker's shop, perhaps because to those who knew the legend, the gold balls recalled the act of reclaiming something of worth.

St. Nicholas and the Three Students

While the above story tells of a good deed the saint did during his lifetime, other tales recount the miracles he worked after his death. One of the most popular of these sprouted up in twelfth-century France and describes how St. Nicholas aided three traveling students who fell into the hands of an evil innkeeper. While the students slept the innkeeper searched their bags and stole all their money. In an attempt to cover up his crime, he not only killed the sleeping students but also cut them up and hid the pieces of their bodies in his pickle barrels. The saint, outraged at this crime, caused the pieces of their bodies to come together again and restored the students to life. This story depicts Nicholas once again coming to the rescue of young people. Perhaps this inclination to aid the young explains why later traditions identified Nicholas as a bringer of gifts to children.

St. Nicholas and the Unpaid Loan

Another medieval tale describing a miracle performed by the dead saint tells how he prevented an unscrupulous Christian from cheating a Jewish moneylender. The saint caused the Christian's death in such a way as to reveal the hiding place of the money he owed to the moneylender. Uncomfortable with this solution to his problem, the moneylender remarked that if the saint were truly good he wouldn't have let the guilty man die. Thereupon St. Nicholas brought the Christian back to life. The Christian then repented his attempt to cheat the moneylender and paid his debt. These events impressed the moneylender so much that he converted to Christianity. Thus, St. Nicholas acquired a reputation for imposing scrupulous honesty in financial transactions.

In Italy around the time of the Renaissance the Medici family, a wealthy and influential clan of bankers and politicians, placed three gold balls on their coat of arms. They probably hoped that this symbol of St. Nicholas would inspire confidence in the integrity of their financial dealings. Eventually, others in the financial trades began to use the gold balls as a symbol of their profession.


Many other tales tell how the saint rescued sailors from storms at sea, returned the kidnapped, defended those falsely accused of crimes, and fought against evil spirits associated with such pagan deities as Artemis. Along with the story of the three dowryless maidens, these tales circulated with greater frequency in southern and eastern Europe. There Christians recognized Nicholas first and foremost as the patron of seafarers. Belief in the saint's concern for those at sea spread throughout Europe. Evidence of this belief can be found in the many churches in European port towns dedicated to the saint.

In northern and central Europe, however, where the tale of the three students achieved widespread popularity, people venerated St. Nicholas primarily as the patron of children. Indeed, over time illustrations depicting the story of the three students reduced their ages so that they began to appear as children rather than as young men. This trend can also be detected in northern European depictions of the three dowryless maidens. Furthermore, in northern Europe St. Nicholas acquired the reputation of being sympathetic to the prayers of those looking for marriage partners and those hoping for children. His association with fertility further supported his identity as a patron of children.

By the late Middle Ages people living in different regions of Europe held somewhat different images of the saint's concerns. These differences explain why Nicholas eventually became a bringer of gifts to children in northern and central Europe and not in southern and eastern Europe. As the popularity of his cult grew, Nicholas acquired many patronages. He became the patron saint of children, students, bankers, pawnbrokers, sailors, dock workers, brewers, coopers (barrel makers), travelers, pilgrims, thieves, undeserving losers of lawsuits, and the nations of Greece and Russia.

Bones of St. Nicholas

For centuries the Church of St. Nicholas in Myra guarded what were believed to be the saint's remains in a stone sarcophagus. Around the year 1000, some of the saint's relics were donated to the city of Kiev, an act that planted the saint's cult in Russia. In the eleventh century another, more dramatic move took place. In the year 1087 a ship from Bari, Italy, arrived at Myra. The men on board seized the remains of the saint and carried them back to Bari. It is unclear whether or not the custodians of the saint's relics in Myra consented to their removal. The Italians may have been motivated by fear that the Muslim Turks, who had invaded Asia Minor from the east, would desecrate the saint's tomb. Or the citizens of Bari may simply have coveted the privilege of housing the saint's relics, since in those days people held the bodily remains of saints in great honor.

Soon after Nicholas's bones were established in Bari a steady train of pilgrims began to visit the town, no doubt bringing new wealth and prestige to the city. To accommodate the bones as well as the tourists, the archbishop commissioned the building of a glorious new basilica in Bari. It was completed in 1108. Only afterwards did anyone recognize that the Muslim workmen who had built and decorated much of the church had incorporated an assertion of the Islamic faith onto the church walls. The phrase "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet," written in Arabic calligraphy, was woven into the designs decorating the walls. Given the beauty of these designs, church officials decided not to remove them.

St. Nicholas in the Twentieth Century

The cult of St. Nicholas in western Europe reached its height during the Middle Ages. In the centuries that followed, interest in the saint slowly diminished, reflecting an overall decline in the veneration of saints. In 1969 the Vatican itself struck a blow at the saint's status when it removed Nicholas from the universal calendar of saints, making his veneration optional, rather than obligatory, for all Roman Catholics.

Perhaps this demotion explains why in 1972 the Roman Catholic Church willingly donated some of the saint's long-coveted bones and relics to the Greek Orthodox Church of New York City. One might also recall that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches split apart from one another in 1054, shortly before the seizure of St. Nicholas's bones from their tomb in Orthodox Asia Minor by sailors from Roman Catholic western Europe. Viewed in this light, the transfer of a portion of St. Nicholas relics back to the Orthodox Church appears as something of a belated apology for this questionable act. In any case, the gift was presented as a token of the growing good will between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York kept some of the relics, but the majority of them are now housed in the Shrine of St. Nicholas in Flushing, New York.

In recent years the citizens of Demre, Turkey, have begun to lobby for the return of the bones to their original resting place. Their group, called the "Santa Claus Foundation," sent a letter to the archbishop of Bari requesting the return of the relics. Since Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, some grumble that the group is not motivated by religious beliefs but rather by the desire to secure a lucrative tourist attraction for their town. Demre already hosts a yearly celebration on St. Nicholas's Day. The sixteen-year-old event, which began as a religious symposium, now includes a festival featuring the awarding of a "Father Christmas Peace Prize."

Further Reading

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Ebon, Martin. Saint Nicholas, Life and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. Jones, Charles W. Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. McKnight, George. St. Nicholas. 1917. Reprint. Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House Publishers, 1974. Newland, Mary Reed. The Saint Book. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.
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