By Fr. Sean McDermott
For many reasons, St. Nicholas is one of my favorite saints. I actually love how the stories of St. Nicholas developed into cultural traditions that have shifted and morphed throughout time. In order to remember the man himself (and some of the stories), I am posting here an excerpt from The Church's Year by Charles Alexander. We have just published a wonderful new edition of this book which gives short summaries of saints lives and liturgical seasons. Get your copy (or one for a Christmas present) here.
St Nicholas is a saint of whom nothing is known with certainty, but about whom there are many stories. He is, however, well known to us all as Santa Claus, a name given him in America which comes from the Dutch words ' Sante Klaas'. The very old custom of giving presents to children on the Eve of St Nicholas' Day was taken to America by the early Dutch colonists; there it was transferred to Christmas Eve, Santa Claus being transferred also. Thence the custom came to England. There is a famous American children's poem that begins:
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
The custom of giving presents is said to have originated from a gift of three pieces of gold that St Nicholas threw through the window of a poor man's house, to enable his three daughters to get married.
Nicholas is thought to have been born in Asia Mi-nor, the son of rich Christian parents, and to have become Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the time of the pagan emperor Diocletian. He was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned, then released by the Christian emperor Con-stantine, and after taking part in the Council of Nicaea died in 342. In 1087 his body was taken to Bari in south. ern Italy by forty Iralian merchants, who were jealous of the fame of the saint in the East, and wanted such a fa. mous man's body for their own part of Europe. He was acclaimed in the West, and about four hundred churches in England are dedicated to him.
He is the patron saint of sailors, and many of his churches are in seaport towns; it is said that churches ded. icated to him were sometimes built beside the sea so that their towers were landmarks to sailors. There are many stories of his power over the sea: for instance, it is said that certain sailors in the Aegean Sea were in difficulties in a storm, and called on him. St. Nicholas appeared and calmed the sea, and then guided them to port.
He is also the patron saint of Russia, and there is an old story from that country that from sunset on his day to sunrise the following day no wolf will touch a man or an animal, but spends its time in meditation, even if one steps upon its tail!
Lastly, he is the patron saint of children; he is often shown with three children in a tub beside him; for there is a story that he restored three children to life after they had been killed and their bodies pickled in a tub by an inkeeper who wanted food for his guests. In the Middle Age here used to be the ceremony on the eve of his day of electing a Boy Bishop. He was chosen from the choir boys, and had some of the powers of a real bishop till Childermas or Innocents' Day on 28th December. If the boy died while he was a Boy Bishop he was buried in bishop's robes, and there is in Salisbury Cathedral the tomb of such a boy.