St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and Saint of Bari

The Story of St Nicholas (curtesy of the Saint Nicholas Society)

Saint Nicholas was born in 260AD in Patara, a coastal town in what is now Turkey. The poor knew him throughout the land for his generosity, his love for children and being associated with ships, the sea and sailors. He was eventually consecrated Bishop of Myra, just miles from his hometown.

Our western tradition of Santa Claus and Father Christmas originates with the beloved saint. Many Christian churches and many countries observe December 6th, his feast day, with great celebrations, processions, services and gift giving.

Many legends surround his life. During the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured for his beliefs but he never forsook his faith. The new Emperor Constantine eventually released him. Tradition has it that Bishop Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 with many other bishops, a meeting that produced what we today call "The Nicene Creed".

Images of St Nicholas in paintings, icons, statues, collectibles and stained glass often show him alongside three young men in a barrel that he brought back to life after an innkeeper murdered them. He is almost always seen with three bags or balls as well, symbolising the three bags of gold he tossed through the chimney of the home of a poor man in his village for the daughters' dowry, so they would not be sold as slaves. Thus he is also seen as the "gift-giver". A ship and the sea are also common symbols of the saint. Western and Eastern depictions of Blessed Nicholas differ in style and costume.

Saint Nicholas is a patron of many places and people. He closely associated with Russia, Greece, Holland, Austria, Belgium, Aberdeen and New York. Pawnbrokers, travellers, unwed persons, children, sailors and many others claim a special relationship to the saintly figure. Many churches are dedicated to him as well, in England, over 400. Nicholas is third most popular subject of icons in the church, with only Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary having more representations.

The beloved bishop died in 343AD and his body buried in the cathedral at Myra.

However, in 1087, Italian sailors who were fearful that the bones would be desecrated or forgotten by the armies invading the country at that time removed the remains of his bones, called relics. They were taken to Bari, Italy, where they rest in a major basilica dedicated to the saint. Special celebrations are held on May 9 each year on the Bari coast to mark the date of the "translation" of the relics.

The name St Nicholas lives in the hearts of people all over the world, young and old alike. His faith and his actions make remembering him important even in our day. He is our Santa Claus and Father Christmas, and we must remind people today of this fact. To this very day St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) arrives in Holland each November, dressed in a Christian Bishop's vestments, and rides through the streets to the enjoyment of thousands of onlookers, to begin his investigation into the behaviour of the children.

Such customs are being revived in Christian communities all over the world.

St Nicholas Day falls in the season of Advent and with the tradition of his bearing gifts, he became associated with Christmas as well.