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by Catherine Fournier
Bishop of Myra
Feast Day: December 6
Patron of: seafarers, scholars, bankers, pawnbrokers, jurists, brewers, coopers, travelers, perfumers, unmarried girls, brides, robbers and especially - children.
Symbol: three gold balls
The character of Santa Claus is copied from the life of a real person, a saint named Saint Nicholas. The name 'Saint Nicholas' even sounds like 'San-ta claus,' especially in the Dutch language. The Dutch veneration of 'Sinter Klaus' was brought to North America with the Dutch settlers and eventually became the story of Santa Claus that everyone knows.
Saint Nicholas, like St. Wenceslaus and St. Lucy, was a saint. He was the bishop of a city named Myra in Turkey in the early part of the fourth century. His feast day is December 6th because he died on December 6 or 7 in the middle of the fourth century. Feast days celebrate the entry of the saint's soul into Heaven.
The most famous story told about St. Nicholas has to do with three young sisters who were very poor. Their parents were so poor that they did not have enough money for the daughters to get married. Every young girl needed money to pay for the wedding and to set up house for themselves.
Nicholas heard about this family and wanted to help them, but he did not want anyone to know that he was the one who was helping them.
The story is told in a few different ways. In one version, he climbed up on their roof three nights in a row and threw gold coins down their chimney so that they would land in the girls' stockings, which had been hung by the fire to dry. After two of his daughters had been able to marry because of the money mysteriously appearing in their stockings, the father was determined to find out who was helping them, so he hid behind the chimney the next night. Along came Bishop Nicholas with another bag of money.
When he was discovered, he asked the father not to tell anyone else, but the father wanted everyone to know what a good and generous man the Bishop Nicholas was, so he told everyone he knew. That is how we have the story and the tradition of stocking full of gifts today.
St. Nicholas was probably a native of Patara in Lycia, Asia Minor. There are far more legends about his miraculous good deeds than there are clear details about his life.
This much is known for sure:
Nicholas was first a monk in the monastery of Holy Zion near Myra. Eventually he was made Abbot by the Archbishop, its founder. When the See of Myra, the capital of Lycia, fell vacant, St. Nicholas was appointed its Archbishop. It is said that he suffered for the Faith under Diocletian, and that he was present at the Council of Nice as an opponent of Arianism. His death occurred at Myra, in the year 342.
The characteristic virtue of St. Nicholas appears to have been his love and charity for the poor. Because of this and of the many legends of his works, St. Nicholas is regarded as the special patron of children. The Emperor Justinian built a church in his honor at Constantinople in the suburb of Blacharnae, about the year 340.
He has always been honored with great veneration in the Latin and Greek Churches. The Russian Church seems to honor him more than any other saint after the Apostles.
St. Nicholas' Day
By Shonnie Scarola
Used with permission
St. Nicholas, whose feast day is December 6, is the patron of seafarers, scholars, bankers, pawnbrokers, jurists, brewers, coopers, travelers, perfumers, unmarried girls, brides, and - robbers. But most of all, he is the very special saint of children. Devotion to St. Nicholas is found in every European country. He is pictured in the old world as an ascetic-looking bishop, with white beard, red robes, mitre, and crozier but since crossing the ocean he has turned into a fat, jolly, red-nosed gentleman in a snowsuit and red cap. In Holland and Germany he was portrayed traveling on a white horse, while in other areas on foot or by goat or on a donkey. In the old country he comes on the evening before his feast day ( December 6) accompanied by the "Krampus" an ugly, chain-rattling little devil, who has to deal with children who have been naughty. St. Nicholas is much too kind to do the punishing and scolding himself.
History and legend are intertwined in the story of Nicholas's life, but we do know that he really lived in the fourth century, that he was the holy bishop of Myra (now in Turkey) and has been widely honored as a saint since the sixth century. No less than 21 "miracles" have been attributed to him. He became known for his holiness, zeal, and astonishing miracles. Nicholas was quite young when his parents died of the plague leaving him the sole heir of their vast possessions. He determined to devote his inheritance to works of charity.
A most popular legend concerns the three unwed daughters of an impoverished nobleman who lived in a small town on the coast of Turkey. The maidens could not attract husbands because their father could not afford to provide dowries for them. So late one night the holy Nicholas dropped a small bag of gold in the maidens' window so that the eldest girl could be married. Some time later he dropped in a second bag of gold, then a third. On one of the nights, the gold landed in a stocking hung up to dry, and the tradition of leaving gifts in stockings was born. The nobleman had become so poor that he had contemplated allowing his daughters to become sold into prostitution until they were rescued by St. Nicholas. Nicholas was thereafter honored as patron saint of unwed maidens. Thus, God rewarded St. Nicholas and gave him permission to walk the streets on the eve of his feast, bringing gifts to all good children. This particular story was told for so many generations until the theme of the three bags of gold, or gold balls was adopted as a symbol by bankers and moneylenders.
Nicholas, the young man, is credited with having studied at Alexandria, Egypt, then an important center of learning. On one of his voyages there he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship's rigging in a storm. He then became the patron saint of sailors. He miraculously rescued some young boys from a vat of brine thereby becoming the patron of schoolboys.
While visiting the Turkish town of Myra, he entered the local church to give thanks for a safe voyage. He did not know that the elders of the church had lost their leader and could not agree on a successor. According to the legend they had been counseled in a dream to choose the next person named Nicholas (which means "victory" in Greek) who visited the church. So it was that Nicholas became known as Bishop of Myra, worker of miracles and benefactor of the poor.
He destroyed pagan temples, forced a governor, Eustathius, to admit he had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death (Nicholas saved them), and appeared in a dream to Emperor Constantine to tell the Emperor that three imperial officers condemned to death at Constantinople were innocent (Constantine freed them the next morning). While he was Bishop of Myra, a terrible famine afflicted the country. Full of compassion for his people, the Bishop not only obtained a miraculous supply of bread for the multitude, but visited every part of his vast diocese in order to acquaint himself with the condition of all his people. There is a charming custom of planting "wheat candles" on the first Sunday of Advent to light on the Feast of St. Nicholas. Wheat seeds are planted in a tub of soil along with a tall white taper candle. On St. Nicholas Feast Day, the candle is lit. The growth of the wheat towards the light of the candle also symbolizes our growth towards Jesus, the light of the world.
In 1087 a shipload of Italian sailors rescued (or stole) the bones of St. Nicholas and took them to Bari, Italy. A pilgrimage church was erected on the site so that Crusaders could pray on their way to or from the Holy Land. At his shrine in Bari, a sweet smell is often reported. He is the patron of Russia, Greece, Apulia, Sicily, and Lorraine.
Through the centuries he has been one of the most popular saints. More than 1200 churches were dedicated in his honor (nearly four hundred churches were dedicated in England alone); and he is said to have been represented by Christian artists more frequently than any saint except our Lady.
Good little children traditionally received a visit from their patron bearing gifts of candies, cookies, apples, nuts. In some places, the children put their shoes on the window sill on the eve of St. Nicholas' Day and find them filled with candies, cookies, oranges, and dried fruit the next morning. In Holland, the gifts were left in the children's wooden shoes. In convent boarding schools, the young women students would leave their stockings at the door of their respective abbesses' rooms, with notes recommending themselves to the generosity of St. Nicholas - the forerunners of letters to Santa Claus. The next morning the abbesses would summon their charges and show them their stockings filled - supposedly by St. Nicholas - with sweetmeats. Even today, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and some other European countries maintain the annual tradition of gift giving on December 5 or 6. Naughty children were warned with a willow switch, or received pieces of coal.
Before the Reformation it was common throughout England to elect a boy bishop on St. Nicholas' Day. He would exercise jurisdiction until Innocents' or Childermas Day (Dec. 28) and was entitled to a monument and burial as a bishop if he died during his tenure. At least one King of England heard the mass celebrated by a boy bishop. After the Protestant Reformation in Northern Germany, St. Nicholas was replaced by the Krist Kindl, the Christ Child. It should be noted though, that the figure of Santa Claus is really a non-Christian one and is based on the Germanic god Thor who rode on a chariot drawn by goats named Cracker and Cruncher.
We call upon Your mercy, O Lord. Through the intercession of St. Nicholas, keep us safe amid all dangers so that we may go forward without hindrance on the road of salvation. Amen.