St. Nicholas of Myra (also called “of Bari”, and “the Wonderworker”) is one of the world’s most venerated saints. Oddly, too; for although he was certainly the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the early fourth century, almost nothing else is known about him.
People have replaced the missing data on his life with a great many stories that may or may not contain some element of truth. The best of these stories deals with his charities and his miracles.
Mediterranean sailors, for instance, consider Nicholas their patron saint. That is because, as one legend informs us, sailors on a storm-tossed ship once invoked his aid. The bishop, who was still alive at that time, suddenly appeared to the distraught mariners. He led them out of the tempest and into a safe harbor. From this event springs the phrase used by Mediterranean sailors to bid each other bon voyage: “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller!”
But the best-known story about him was his secret charity to the three marriageable daughters of a widower of Patara in present-day Turkey.
This widower, having lost his wealth, could not afford to pay wedding dowries for his three daughters, so he was tempted to allow them to gain a living by immoral means. Learning of this frightful possibility, Nicholas (still a wealthy layman) quietly dropped a gift through the window of the father’s house. (Sometimes the gift is represented as a purse full of gold coins; sometimes, as a ball of solid gold.) This welcome gift enabled the man to marry off his eldest daughter with dignity. Then Nicholas tried the same trick again, and the middle daughter was able to be given in marriage. By now the widower was determined to discover who his benefactor was, so he lay in watch. When the saint came to drop in the third gold ball, he was caught red-handed and profoundly thanked by the widower and his family.
On the basis of this legend, not only bankers but pawn-brokers adopted Nicholas as their patron saint!
The international popularity acquired by this bishop-saint was amazing. A tenth-century writer testified to his fame in the Near East, India, Africa and Europe. After Constantinople fell to the Muslims in 1453, traders from Bari, Italy, stole (or “rescued”) the saint’s relics preserved at Myra and brought them to Bari in southern Italy, where they still remain enshrined. This helped Nicholas to acquire further popularity in western Europe. Eventually over 2,000 churches in France and Germany chose Nicholas as patron, and England had 400 dedicated to him. Lorraine, Sicily, Greece and Russia honor him as a national patron.
Naturally, St. Nicholas, as the bringer of secret gifts, is especially popular among children. For centuries, he has been represented in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands as the kindly one who on December 5, the eve of his feast, travels around in secret to leave sweetmeats in the shoes of sleeping youngsters.
After the Reformation, when Protestant countries minimized saints, the Dutch Calvinists who emigrated to “New Amsterdam” kept Nicholas in their folklore, not as a bishop but as a gift-giver. (“St. Nicholas” in the Netherlands tongue, is “Sinter Klaas” or Santa Claus.) Imported to the U.S.A., Klaas no longer dressed in a bishop’s vestments but in a secular suit of red cloth trimmed with white fur. The Dutch-American “Sinter Klaas” eventually gained wide popularity in this country, even among those of non-Dutch background.
The real Bishop Nicholas is still venerated by the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church as befits a saint so universally beloved. When we get to heaven, we must make a point of taking him aside and asking him, “What is the real story of your life?”
–Father Robert F. McNamara