Theology of the Heart- Life of the Saints- St. Nicholas


Also known as Saint Nicholas of Bari

Feast: December 6

See also: The Office for his feast

Five Popes have taken the name Nicholas, but the saint of our telling was not a pope, but rather a bishop.  

Little is known for certain regarding Saint Nicholas beyond the following facts: he was born in Parara of Lycia, an ancient province of Asia Minor.  In his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine.  A little after his return he was named Bishop of Myra, capital of Lycia, along the Mediterranean Sea.  He was thrown into prison during the persecution of Diocletian for confessing his faith.  He was liberated when the emperor Constantine rose to power. 

Saint Nicholas possibly participated in the Council of Nicea in 325, where the Arian heresy, which placed in doubt the divinity of Jesus Christ, was condemned and the Nicene Creed was instituted, which is the source of the creed that is prayed in the Mass every Sunday.  On the other hand, his name does not appear on the ancient lists of the bishops that participated in the Council. 

Saint Methodius affirms that, “thanks to the teachings of Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra was the only place that was not contaminated with the Arian heresy which he firmly rejected, as if it were a mortal venom”.  Saint Nicholas also took strong measures against paganism and combatted it untiringly.

His zeal for justice is legendary.  When the governor Eustace had been bribed to condemn three innocent men, Nicholas appeared in the moment of the execution, stopped the executioner and set the prisoners free.  Eustace scolded him, until he later recognized his crime and repented.  On this occasion there were three officials present who, when later themselves in danger of death, prayed to Saint Nicholas.  The same night the saint appeared in the dreams of Constantine and ordered him to set free those three men.  Constantine interrogated the three and, upon realizing that it was because they had invoked Saint Nicholas, he freed and sent them to the holy bishop with a letter in which he asked him to pray for peace for the world.  For a long time this was the most famous miracle of Saint Nicholas, and practically the only one that was known in the time of Saint Methodius, who died in 847.

Devotion to Saint Nicholas   

After his death on December 6, in 345 or 352, his devotion grew and the reports of his miracles increased.  He became the patron of children and sailors.  In the 6th Century, the Emperor Justinian constructed a Church in Constantinople in his honor.  His popularity in the city (present day Istanbul) was spread throughout all Christianity.  He was named the patron of Russia and, thanks to the tsars, his devotion increased until there were more churches dedicated in his name in Russia than any other saint, besides the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is interesting that Saint Nicholas was popular in Russia centuries before he was known on the American continent. 

In Germany devotion to Saint Nicholas began under Otto II, possibly through his wife Theophano, who was Greek.  Bishop Reginald de Eichstaedt (991) wrote “Vita S. Nicholai”.

On May 9, 1087, his bones were recovered from Myra which had fallen to a Muslim invasion.  They were taken to Bari, on the Adriatic coast of Italy.  It was possibly at this time in which his devotion grew in Italy, when he was known as Saint Nicholas of Bari.  His relics are still preserved in the Church of Saint Nicholas of Bari, Italy.  In Myra, it is said that “the venerable body of the bishop, embalmed with the oil of virtue, gave off a sweet myrrh that preserved it from corruption and cured the sick, for the glory of this one who had glorified Jesus Christ, our true God.”  This phenomenon was not interrupted the movement of his remains; it is said that an oil known as the Manna of Saint Nicholas, continued flowing from his body. 

Saint Nicholas is honored as the patron of several places: Russia; Naples and Sicily, Italy; Kampen, Holland; Freiburg, Switzerland; Lorena; the Diocese of Liège; also cities in Germany, Austria and Belgium.  In different places he is the patron of sailors, merchants, bread makers, children and travelers.  The sailors of the Aegean Sea and those of Jonico follow the custom of the East, have a “star of St. Nicholas” and wish one safe travels with these words, “May Saint Nicholas take your Wheel”.  His image is represented in art in different ways relating to his miracles. 
In Demre (Turkey), the Basilica of Saint Nicholas is now in ruins and there is some doubt as to which is the original tomb.  No Christians remain in the city, but the Muslim businessmen have founded an charity organizationin his honor that gives a peace prize every year.  

Saint Nicholas as “Santa Claus” 

Dealing with a very popular saint, there is no lack of marvelous stories that have accumulated throughout the centuries.  

The Legend of the Sailors

During a famine, the saint asked that a fleet be organized to carry grain to the people who were suffering hunger.  The fleet survived a terrible storm thanks to the blessing of the bishop.  On another occasion, Saint Nicholas convinced three merchants to give him everything that they had in their boat.  Upon arriving to their destination, they found all their goods in their original place on board. 


The Legend of the Three Maidens

It is told that in the Diocese of Myra a neighbor of Saint Nicholas found himself in such poverty that he decided to give his three virgin daughters to prostitution in order to gain by this vile market, sustenance for himself and them.  Without money, he could not pay a dowry for one of them, and so none of them would be able to marry.  In order to avoid this inhuman condition, Saint Nicholas took a bag with golden coins and, during the dark of night to disguise him, threw it down the chimney of that man’s house.  With the money his daughter was able to marry.  Saint Nicholas did the same favor for the other two sisters.  On the second occasion, while throwing the bag over the wall of the garden of the home of the poor man, he got caught in the clothesline.  The father was watching out the window and discovered the identity of his benefactor and thanked him for his charity. 

It is also told that Saint Nicholas rescued three children that had been killed and thrown into a barrel of salt.  The ancient legend of the children and the gifts through the chimney and the socks come from Germany, Switzerland and the Low Countries, telling the legend of the “child bishop” and over all the custom that Saint Nicholas secretly brings gifts to children on December 6, the day in which the church celebrates his feast.  This tradition was popularized in the United States by the Protestant Hollandese of New Amsterdam, who converted the “papist” saint into a Nordic magi.  His name was abbreviated, not only to Saint Nick, but also to Sint Klaes, or Santa Claus. 
Lamentably, the modern Santa Claus has been paganized.  The bishops miter was replaced by today’s famous red hat, his pectoral cross disappeared completely.  He moved from Turkey to the North Pole, where he lives in the snow with reindeer. 

The pagan Santa Claus captured the imagination of publishers in the west.  Since Saint Nicholas was a bishop, he is represented in red vesture.  The Coca Cola executives liked that he was already dressed in the color of their corporation.  They began to use him in their pre-Christmas advertizing. 

Today, Santa Claus” is used to sell all kinds of things and almost no one remembers the true history.  It is time that Christians recover our saint and we teach our children that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of God as a small child.  Let us remember, then, that Saint Nicholas was holy bishop that concerned himself with the poor, especially the children, and became famous for his charity. 

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