St.Nicholas, History and Modern Influences

St.Nicholas

His Life

Nicholas was born a Greek in Asia Minor during the third century, 270 AD, in the city of Patara, a port on the Mediterranean Sea. He lived in Myra, the only son of wealthy Christian parents who brought him up as a devout Christian. His parents died in an epidemic when Nicholas was still young and he was then brought up by his uncle -also Nicholas-who was the Bishop of Patara. Nicholas observed God’s rule of giving generously to the poor and needy and used his entire inheritance to this end. His reputation went before him and whilst still a young man, Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra. His ordination to the priesthood being “rushed through” so that he could become Bishop. As Bishop he was well known for his concern for the needy, his love for children and his concern for sailors. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian who persecuted Christians, Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith and exiled. He was released in 325AD. He died on the 6th December 343AD aged 73 in Myra. The 6th December became the feast day of St.Nicholas. His remains were buried in his cathedral church in Myra and this is where a liquid substance called “manna” formed in his grave, this substance was said to have had healing powers and many devoted pilgrims came here to visit his  resting place. Nicholas became a saint many years before the regular canonization procedures of the 10th century began. His name and reputation as a man who lived his life dedicated to Christ and to the needy of this world, was spread by sailors who took the stories of his life to all the ports where they sailed into, this is why there are so many churches dedicated to St.Nicholas in seaports all over the world.

The moving of his remains

In 1071 Romanus IV, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire faced battle with Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks, Romanus suffered a humiliating defeat and as a result the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor. Myra was overtaken and the people were fearful that the tomb of St,Nicholas would be destroyed and looted. Sailors from Bari took advantage of the confusion in the city and seized most the saint’s remains and took them back to Bari where they built a shrine to St.Nicholas. There are now two churches at the shrine, one Catholic and the other Orthodox.

Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas’ skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and brought to Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido. This tradition was confirmed in two scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton.

Legends of his Goodness

There are many legends linked with St.Nicholas, and many of them have been proved to have historical truth to them or at least to the main facts of the story even if some of the lesser facts differ. One such legend, and one of the most famous, is of the poor man’s three daughters. In those days it was customary to offer a dowry to prospective suitors and those unable to provide a dowry were often sold into slavery. This poor man was a good man and feared for his daughters but could not see how he would be able to provide them with a dowry. Three times a bag of money was left at his house and this he used for their dowries. Other stories tell of the bags of money being tossed into the house and splitting open and the coins landing inside shoes and stockings hanging up at the fireside to dry, thus the legend of St.Nicholas as a giver of gifts was born.

Another story tells how an evil butcher waylays and murders three young boys and puts their bodies into a large barrel to use as meat, St.Nicholas prays to God and the three young men are restored to life in answer to the saint’s prayers. It is through this story that St.Nicholas became the Protector of Children.

During a great famine that the Bishop of Myra experienced, a ship was in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. He invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not take any damage for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find: the weight of the load had not changed, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.

During his time as Bishop, Nicholas visited the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and on returning, by sea, there was a terrible storm that threatened to sink the ship and take the lives of all who were aboard. Nicholas calmly sank to his knees and prayed to God for a safe journey, whereupon the storm abated and the journey continued in peace. From this St.Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and ships.

The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honoured by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students in various countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe (Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia), as well as in parts of Western Europe (Belgium, France, Netherlands, Portugal). He is also the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Burgas(Bulgaria), Beit Jala, Fribourg,Huguenots, Kozani, Liverpool, Paternopoli, Sassari, Siggiewi, and Lorraine. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.

Celebrations of the 6th December

Around the world there are numerous celebrations held in honour of St.Nicholas on the 6th December. In many countries children receive their gifts on this day and Christmas Day is dedicated to and celebrated as the birth of Christ. (See Customs and Traditions of Christmas for more) .

France

St. Nicolas comes primarily in Alsace, Lorraine and Nord-Pas-de-Calais (French Flanders). St. Nicolas is patron of Lorraine. A little donkey carries baskets filled with children’s gifts, biscuits and sweets. The whole family gets ready for the saint’s arrival on 6 December, with grandparents telling stories of the saint.

Italy

St. Nicholas (San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari, where  he is buried. Its deeply felt celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola, held on the 7–9 of May. In particular on 8 May the relics of the saint are carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare). On 6th December there is a ritual called the Rito delle nubili. The same tradition is currently observed in Sassari, where during the day of Saint Nicholas, patron of the city, gifts are given to young brides who need help before getting married.

In the provinces of Trieste, Belluno and Trentino St. Nicholas (San Nicolò) is celebrated with gifts given to children on the morning of 6th December and with a fair called Fiera di San Nicolò during the first weeks of December.In some families this celebration is more important than Christmas.

Belgium, the Netherlands and the Lower Rhineland (Germany)

In the Netherlands and  Belgium, Saint Nicholas’ Eve (5 December) is the primary occasion for gift-giving. In the days leading up to 5th December young children put their shoes in front of the chimneys and sing Sinterklaas songs. Often they put a carrot or some hay in the shoes, as a gift to St. Nicholas’ horse.  The next morning they will find a small present in their shoes, ranging from sweets to marbles or some other small toy. On the evening of 5th December, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child who has behaved well in the past year. This is often done by placing a bag filled with presents outside the house or living room, after which a neighbour or parent bangs the door or window, pretending to be Sinterklaas’ assistant.  Sinterklaaswears a bishop’s robes including a red cape and mitre and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dress, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (“Black Petes”) or “Père Fouettard” in the French-speaking part of Belgium.

German speaking countries

In Northern Germany, Sankt Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot called Nikolaus-Stiefel (Nikolaus boot) outside the front door on the night of 5th December. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts and sweets overnight, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good, polite and helpful the last year. If they were not, they will have a tree branch (Rute) in their boots instead.  In more catholic regions, Nikolaus is dressed very much like a bishop and rides on a horse, welcomed at public places by a large crowd.

In Austria, Bavaria and Tyrol (Austro-Bavarian speaking regions), St. Nicholas is accompanied by Krampus, represented as a beast like creature.

In Swiss folklore, the Christmas gift-bringer is known as Samichlaus (like Dutch Sinterklaas a corruption of the name of St. Nicholas). The Swiss version of the scary companion of St. Nicholas corresponding to the Austrian Krampus and the German Knecht Ruprecht is known as Schmutzli. In Catholic parts of Switzerland, Saint Nicholas long retained his traditional habit of bishop’s robes and mitre, while in Protestant parts, he came to be depicted in the Anglo-American “Father Christmas”

In Croatia, Nikolaus (Sveti Nikola) who visits on Saint Nicholas day (Nikolinje) brings gifts to children commending them for their good behavior over the past year and exhorting them to continue in the same manner in the year to come. If they fail to do so they will receive a visit from Krampus who traditionally leaves a rod,

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Mikuláš, in Poland Mikołaj and in Ukraine Svyatyi Mykolay is often also accompanied by an angel(anděl/anioł/anhel) who acts as a counterweight to the ominous devil or Knecht Ruprecht (čert/czart). Additionally, in Poland children find the candy and small gifts under the pillow or in their shoes the evening of 5th December [O.S. 18 December (in Ukraine)] or the morning of 6th December [O.S. 19 December].

In Hungary and Romania, children typically leave their boots on the windowsill on the evening of 5th December. By next morning Nikolaus (Szent Miklós traditionally but more commonly known as Mikulás in Hungary or Moş Nicolae (Sfântul Nicolae) in Romania) leaves candy and gifts if they have been good, or a rod (Hungarian: virgács, Romanian: nuieluşǎ) if they have been bad (most children end up getting small gifts, but also a small rod). In Hungary he is often accompanied by the Krampusz, the frightening helper who is out to take away the bad ones.

In LuxembourgKleeschen is accompanied by the Houseker a frightening helper wearing a brown monk’s habit.

In Slovenia, Saint Nikolaus (Miklavž) is accompanied by an angel and a devil (parkelj) corresponding to the Austrian Krampus.

In Serbia, and among the Serb people living across the world, Saint Nicholas is the most widely celebrated family patron saint, celebrated as the feast day  of Nikoljdan. Since Nikoljdan always falls in the fasting period preceding Christmas, it is celebrated according to the Eastern Orthodox fasting rules . Fasting refers in this context to the eating of a restricted diet for reasons of religion.

In the Republic of Bulgaria, Saint Nicholas is one of the most celebrated saints. Many churches and monasteries are named after him. Saint Nicholas’ day is celebrated as a holiday on the 6th of December.

United States and Canada

While feasts of Saint Nicholas are not observed nationally, cities with strong German influences like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis celebrate St. Nick’s Day on a scale similar to the German custom. As in other countries, many people in the United states celebrate a separate St Nicholas Day by putting their shoes outside their bedroom doors on the evening of 5th December. St Nicholas then comes during the night. On the morning of 6th December, those people will find their shoes filled with gifts and sugary treats. Widespread adoption of the tradition has spread among the German, Polish, Belgian and Dutch communities throughout the United States.

 

One can see that the name of Santa Claus has been derived from St.Nicholas, Santa – Saint and Claus – a shortened version of Nicholas or Nicolaus, so the next time your young child asks you if there really is a Santa Claus you can honestly look them in the eye and say “YES there really is!”

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