Historians generally write that much of what is said about Nicholas is legend. At Nicholas’s time there was no investigation and no authentication of claimed miracles before canonization took place. Attributing miracles and wonders to a person was a way of expressing people’s conviction about the holiness of the person, and enough to qualify him or her for sainthood.
There are many stories of miracles attributed to the intercession of St. Nicholas. One of the most popular tells of his generosity to a prominent citizen of Patara, near Myra, Turkey. The man had lost all his money and as such could not provide a dowry for his three daughters. Without a dowry, women of that time could not marry, and instead might be sold into slavery. On three separate occasions, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins into an open window in the man’s house. The coins landed in shoes left by the fire to dry. These unexpected gifts allowed the man to provide dowries for his daughters.
This legend led to the custom, popular in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, of leaving shoes outside the bedroom door on the eve of December 6, in expectation of a small gift or coins. It is the basis for our modern-day custom of hanging stockings by the fire at Christmas. Incidentally, it is also the reason why pawnbrokers are often symbolized by three gold balls.
In our Christmas customs, the gifts of gold coins are memorialized by hanging oranges or gold balls as decorations, and Nicholas’s generous gesture was remembered by gift-giving.
St. Nicholas traditions were first brought to the New World by the Vikings, who dedicated to him their cathedral in Greenland, and then by Christopher Columbus, who named a Haitian port for St. Nicholas on December 6, 1492. As the Americas became populated by Europeans from different countries, they brought their own customs and practices with them, including a wealth of traditions for celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas.
In the early 1800s, the character of St. Nicholas began to develop into a more secular symbol of Christmas, especially evidenced in 1823 by the publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a poem attributed to Clement Moore. Moore’s depiction of the jolly saint is quite a departure from the image of a fourth-century Turkish bishop.
Whatever the historical basis of Nicholas of Myra, he has proved to be an enduring figure and symbol of the Christmas season. The elements of wisdom, generosity and kindness found in his story provide an excellent model for us during this time of year. Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, jolly man or gentle giver, he models the gifts we share in his name.
St. Nick and the Catholic Tradition
by John Feister
For many Christians, St. Nicholas, precursor to Santa Claus, is no quaint figure from the past. He is one of the most popular saints, especially among Eastern and Orthodox Catholics, and constantly
intercedes on behalf of the Church.
Archbishop Nicholas of Myra was devoted to charity, poverty and the protection of children and families. Due to the many miracles associated with him, St. Nicholas is the patron of children, of travelers, of those seeking husbands and of many other causes. His feast is December 6.
Really a Saint
So many legends have cropped up around St. Nicholas that some commentators question whether he really existed. One of the few things we can say with historical certainty about this saint of early
Christianity is that he indeed lived. He was born in 280 and became the archbishop of the busy seaport of Myra, in present-day Turkey. He was such a devoted and holy bishop that, much like
Mother Teresa, the people of his day immediately recognized him as a saint. Thus, the Church kept careful track of his remains after he died in 342.
The relics exude a sweet-smelling oil, or myrrh, called “St. Nicholas Manna.” Many have sought this oil for its healing powers. The oil is “a sign of the purity of Nicholas’s life, that his body, even in death, is uncorrupt and sweet,” says Fr. Nicholas Palis, an authority on saints and a Greek Orthodox priest from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.
From his studies, Fr. Palis raises the question of whether there was more than one Nicholas. He refers to a manuscript of one “St. Nicholas of Zion,” a beloved and well-known abbot at Mount Zion Monastery near Myra, who lived around the time of Archbishop Nicholas. This abbot traveled to the Holy Land and returned and is credited with miracles at sea along the way. Stories of these two Nicholases could have blended over time, says Fr. Palis. That would explain some of the contradictions in Nicholas’s biography.
Witness of Love
The name Nicholas derives from two Greek words, Niki (“victory”) and laos (“people”). Thus, Nicholas means “one who is victorious with the people.” He is “victorious through his saintly life. I
think St. Nicholas always moves people to imitate his virtues of charity, love and zeal,” explains Fr. Palis.
Most people focus on the charity of St. Nicholas, but forget another of his key virtues, his asceticism, says Fr. Palis: “Most people think of him, due to the influence of Santa Claus, as a roly-poly, heavyset fellow. But the feeling I get from reading the life of the saint is that he was a man of very great prayer and fasting. He must have been a holy person indeed to work all these miracles, and to have such a godly zeal.”
Nicholas sets an example, says Palis, in his daring protection of those being treated unjustly and his selfless giving to those in need. “He’s fasting and praying a lot for his people,” adds the priest.
Patron of Travelers
Greeks are especially devoted to Nicholas because he is the patron of seafarers. “Every boat in Greece has an icon of Nicholas, with a vigil lamp before it,” says Fr. Palis.
In the weeks following September 11, 2001, the Greek Orthodox congregation of tiny St. Nicholas Church in Manhattan, destroyed in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to announce their intention to rebuild. They invoked Nicholas as the patron of all travelers, including airline passengers.
Defender of the Faith
A final aspect of St. Nicholas is not to be forgotten, says Fr. Palis. Nicholas, who lived during the time of Christian persecution at the hands of Roman emperors, suffered for his faith and survived torture in prison.
When the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, the Church faced an important debate between the Egyptian theologians Arius and Athanasius over the divinity of Jesus. Followers of these two rioted in the streets. The issue was settled in 325 at the Council of Nicea, which is the source of the Nicene Creed prayed at Mass today.
There is a legend that Archbishop Nicholas, at this council, was so infuriated at Arius’s denial of Jesus’ full divinity that he slapped him across the face! This story, true or not, put Nicholas squarely on the side of those who proclaimed Jesus as “one in being [consubstantial] with the Father.”
Nicholas and Jesus
In these days before Christmas, we can celebrate the feast of Nicholas as a time to refocus on Jesus. St. Nicholas showed us how to find Jesus in the poor, the oppressed and the abused. St. Nicholas shows us how to find Jesus through prayer and religious zeal.
Let’s relish the spirit of joy and charity embodied in Santa’s gift-giving, but let’s not forget the real St. Nicholas, who, like all the saints, points to Jesus. That’s the truest Christmas spirit.
Honor St. Nick as a Family
by Susan Hines-Brigger
When my daughter Maddie was nine, she suddenly took an interest in the logistics of celebrating St. Nick: “We learned in school that you have to be dead to be a saint. So if he’s dead, how does St. Nick deliver gifts to us? Is it his ghost?”
Her five-year-old brother, Alex, screamed. I panicked and tried to think of a logical, pastoral and quick answer. How do I explain my way out of this without blowing the charade for the kids? I wasn’t totally sure whether Maddie comprehended the implications of her question.
I quickly gathered my composure and did what any self-respecting parent does in moments like this. I distracted them and then I got to work researching this saint who inspired—but all too often plays
runner-up to—Santa Claus.
With the information I had collected, I sat the kids down and regaled them with the tales of St. Nicholas. We talked about ways to live out and honor his example. Later that evening, as I tucked them into bed and went downstairs to fill up their stockings, I said a small prayer of thanks to St. Nicholas for his giving spirit and loving example. And I added a small prayer of thanks that my kids seemed to have forgotten about the ghosts of long-passed saints entering our home to deliver gifts.
How to Celebrate St. Nick's Day
Extend the celebration. St. Nicholas wanted his gift-giving to be done in secret—and not to last just one night. Make an effort to surprise members of your family with special gifts or thoughtful acts throughout the holiday season—just to brighten their day.
Visit http://www.stnicholascenter.org. This website offers lots of information about St. Nicholas, as well as projects and activities for families, churches and schools.
Show St. Nick some love. Make as big a deal about St. Nick as you do Santa Claus. Talk about the differences and similarities between the two.
Give gifts that acknowledge the uniqueness of each person and help them become even more themselves—pastels for the artist, sheet music for the musician, tools for the craftsperson.
Choose decorations that bring joy to you and your family and make decking the halls a group effort.
Celebrating in the Spirit of the Gospels
The source of all of our Christmas traditions is Jesus. We give gifts to others because we recognize that others often have needs they cannot meet and are too ashamed to express. We decorate our homes to remind ourselves of all the season’s joy—the bounty of nature, the beauty in simple things.
When Jesus fed the multitudes, he didn’t cook for three days or call a caterer. He took what was available and made it work. Maybe this year’s Christmas feast is a potluck on paper plates. Maybe it’s at your church or a local shelter after serving others in the community. Think about those who might not have family nearby. Is there room for them at your table?
When we pursue these things with our focus on Jesus, we will find them peaceful, life-giving, and manageable.