Who was St Nicholas? St Nicholas’s feast day is celebrated on December 5 in the Eastern Orthodox Church and December 6 in the Roman Catholic Church in the west. He was born in the Greek city of Patara on March 15, 270 CE and died on December 6, 343 CE. Patara was a vibrant coastal city on the southwest coast of Lycia, the Mediterranean coast of modern day Turkey. His parents were wealthy, devout Christians. According to legend he was an exceptional child who preferred to memorize scripture and go to church. The priesthood was a logical vocation. The factual details of his life are minimal, but over time legends of his kindness and charity, his ability to intervene in serious situations saving lives, and his many miracles increased his growing popularity. He became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker and the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, students, coopers, fisherman, pharmacists, and especially children. Clearly stories about his life and after-death miracles grew substantially.
Nicholas was made the Bishop of Myra in a unique way. When the Bishop of Myra died, the priests could not decide how to choose a new Bishop. In a dream, the most respected of the priests was told that the first priest to enter the church the next morning was to be made Bishop. He went to the church and stayed up all night to be there in the morning. Nicholas, who had been away, arrived early in the day and went first to the church to pray. As the first priest to enter the church, he was proclaimed Bishop of Myra. Nicholas was canonized a saint in 1466. His depiction is generally determined by whether the artist is Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic. St Nicholas is depicted with a halo, holding the Bible and with giving a blessing with his right hand. As a Bishop he is can be depicted wearing a cassock with mitre and Crozier.
Nicholas’s acts of charity began after his wealthy parent’s death, and he felt the need to dispose of his inheritance. His first act of charity was to help a neighbor who unfortunately had lost most of his money and could not afford dowries for his three daughters. In the dark of night, Nicholas went to the house and dropped a sack of gold through the window. The father was able to provide a dowry for his eldest daughter. Nicholas repeated the nighttime visit with a second sack of gold. The father and daughters told everyone about the mysterious gifts, and the father was determined to find out who the benefactor was. When the sack of gold arrived for the third daughter, her waited and watched. Seeing Nicholas, he followed him and praised him for his generosity and kindness in providing for his daughters and saving them from prostitution. Nicholas pledged him to silence and assured him the gift was from God.
On a voyage by Nicholas to the Holy Lands a great storm came up arose. The Golden Legend by Jacobus Voragine ( 1228-1298) records that the sailors called out to Nicholas, “Servant of God, if what we have heard of thee is true, let us make trial of it at this moment.” Nicholas replied “You called me, here I am.” Nicholas assisted with the sails, ropes, and tackle and the storm ceased. He told them to thank God, not him.
A famine broke out in Myra in the years 311 to 312 CE, and the people were close to starving. Nicholas was made aware of an Imperial ship in the harbor loaded with grain, Nicholas talked with the ship’s captain. The ship’s cargo of grain had been weighed in the city of Alexandria was headed to the Emperor in Constantinople. The weight of grain was assured and it must reach Constantinople. Nicholas convinced the captain that some of the grain could be offloaded in Myra and the captain and crew would not be punished. Persuaded, the captain gave Myra enough grain to feed the population for two years and enough to sow for the next year’s harvest. When the ship arrived in Constantinople, the weight of grain was equal to the original weight; nothing was missing.
While visiting other parts of his diocese, Nicholas he was called back urgently to Myra because its ruler, Eustathius, had wrongly condemned three innocent men to death, and their execution was imminent. Hurrying back, Nicholas arrived as the executioner held his sword over the head of one of the prisoners. Nicholas either commanded the executioner to put down his sword, or as shown in the painting, he grabbed the sword with his bare hands. The unjustly accused men were released and proved innocent. One version says that Eustathius later confessed his sin to Nicholas, and after a completing a penance was absolved.
Nicholas became especially venerated for his help to children. In one rather peculiar, but frequently reported story, Nicholas was again faced with a looming famine. On passing by an inn, Nicholas was offered a meal of pork by the inn keeper. Observing the pork in the pickling barrel, Nicholas realized the meat was not pork, but children. The inn keeper had cut them into small pieces and was pickling them to sell as pork. Nicholas immediately restored the children’s bodies and brought them back to life.
In a true story, Nicholas was imprisoned for five years during the reign of Diocletian (r 284-316 CE) who was trying to rid the Roman Empire of Christians. Nicholas was released when Constantine became Holy Roman Emperor, adding Holy to the title as he made the Empire Christian. A disputed legend puts Nicholas at the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE). It was called by Constantine to settle the Arian heresy that Christ was not God in flesh brought by Bishop Arius. Nicholas purportedly slapped Arius and as a result put into chains, stripped of his robes, and imprisoned. He prayed all night, and the next morning when they came to his cell, he was dressed in his Bishops robes, unchained, and sitting quietly reading. Constantine freed him and restored his Bishopric. The result of the First Council of Nicaea was to repute the Arian heresy, and the Nicene Creed was written. Nicholas was credited by some accounts as having signed the document.
Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated today mostly in European countries. On December 6, children put a pair of shoes by the hearth, and St. Nicholas comes during the night and secretly places small gifts in them. His legend lives on today. St Nicholas has become known to Americans as Santa Claus. How this transformation happened will be the subject of a SPY article on December 17.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.