Today is the feast of St. Nicholas. Though I had heard of this saint a number of times as a child, most of what I had heard was in relation to the stories of Santa Clause. But as with many things in life, I became far more familiar with this saint through my wife. Born on St. Nicholas day, a number of years after her mother’s treatment for cancer. My wife was a bit of a miracle child (as most people become infertile after cancer treatment). Coming from a strong German Catholic family, all of this gave reason for a strong devotion to the saint as my wife grew up. She would eventually take the name Nicole for her confirmation name in his honor. As we raised our children together, we have instilled a similar devotion in them. I hope I can share a bit of what I’ve learned about him over the years with you!
The traditions of St. Nicholas day are many and varied depending on culture and place, but most have to do with the placing of coins, or oranges, or small gifts in the shoes or stockings of children. Much of these activities come from the legend of St. Nicholas
that he once gave a gift of gold to three young girls so that they could get married. As the story goes, they had no money for a dowery and, at the time, this meant they may be sold into slavery. So, not wanting to be known as their benefactor, St. Nicholas placed the gift in either their shoes or stockings that were drying near the window. Depending on the
tradition, the gold was either in the form of coins or in the form of balls about the size of an orange, thus the tradition of giving oranges on that day.
Having lived in a coastal town, he is also known to have had a special place in his heart for sailors and pilgrims. He is said to have been able to perform the same miracles as Jesus, calming the storms after returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thus, in addition to the protector of children, the saint is known as the patron of sailors and sea travelers.
What we know about him historically is that he was from a part of Greece, called Myra, that is now a part of modern-day Turkey. We know that he suffered under the Christian persecutions of Diocletian and was imprisoned for some time. We also know that he was made a bishop at a very young age and that he attended the council of Nicaea in 325. Many modern memes discuss the idea that he was known to have punched the heretic priest, Arius in the face at that very council. More likely, it was a slap, but far from impressing his fellow bishops with the deed, they stripped him of his bishop’s garments and threw him in prison. Legend tells of the Emperor, Constantine, and some of the other bishops having a dream convincing them to release Nicholas and reinstate him. Eventually, we know the council found the teachings of Arius to be in error and an early version of the Nicene Creed that we use at Mass was instituted to commemorate the proper teaching. Saint Nicholas died after his return to Myra on December 6, 343.
Because of all of the wars and various acts of piracy in and around Myra over the ages, many were concerned that the saints relics might be lost. Because of this, Italian pirates who were devoted to the saint, snuck into Myra and claimed "most" of the bones of Nicholas. Bringing them back to Italy, they eventually built a basilica to house them. For this reason, he may now be found primarily in the Basilica Shrine of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, on its southern coast. Later, during the crusades, some Venetians went back to Myra and claimed the rest of his bones from the Orthodox monks protecting them. For this reason there is a second Church dedicated to St. Nicholas in Venice with the remainder of his relics.