Saint of the week

St Nicholas, 6th December

St Nicholas was the 4th Century Bishop of Myra, the capital of Lycia, a province of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor. He is also the original Father Christmas.

Few historical facts are known about the life of St Nicholas. The earliest hagiography was written by St Methodius of Constantinople in the 9th Century who praises him as a “distinguished shepherd”.

According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, what is generally accepted as fact is that St Nicholas was imprisoned during the persecutions of Christians by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the first decade of the fourth century and that he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325.

There, he fiercely argued against the heretic Arius and even slapped him, for which again he was thrown into prison.

He was a tireless preacher against Arianism and paganism, and a champion of justice, intervening with Roman governors, and on one occasion with the Emperor Constantine himself, on behalf of prisoners who had been unjustly condemned. He died in Myra and was buried there.

A cult developed in the years afterwards and by the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century there was a basilica in his honour in Constantinople.

The popularity of the saint also gave rise to popular legends which have continued to resonate down the centuries.

These include how he helped a man from Patara, his home town, who had lost all of his money and whose three daughters were without dowries. St Nicholas was reputed to have thrown three bags of gold into the house of the man on three occasions so that the women were able to marry. These became the origin of the pawnbrokers’ three golden balls and explains how St Nicholas also came to be considered a patron for unmarried women and brides.

Another legend recounts how St Nicholas resuscitated three murdered children who had been pickled in brine by an evil innkeeper, explaining how he became a patron saint of children.

Another legend holds that his shrine at Myra produced a fragrant “myrrh”, leading perfume-makers to declare him as their patron saint. He is also the patron of sailors, following the legend that he appeared to storm-tossed mariners in his own lifetime, and brought them safely into port: in the Mediterranean the saying: “May St Nicholas hold the tiller,” can be translated as: “Have a safe journey.”

By the Middle Ages his cult had reached Britain and nearly 400 churches were dedicated to his honour in England alone, with Nicholas enduring as a popular name for boys in the present day. He is said to have been represented by Christian artists more frequently than any saint other than Our Lady.

The popularity of St Nicholas is equally as strong in the East as it is in the West and after Saracens over-ran Myra in 1087 his relics were transferred to Bari, southern Italy, where there was a large Greek colony. St Nicholas is a patron saint of Russia and in March 2002 some of the relics were given by the Catholic Church to the Russian Orthodox Church as an ecumenical gesture and these are now housed at the Davidovsky Monastery.

Significantly, he was also commonly venerated in northern Europe where gifts were exchanged in his name at Christmas time. This tradition was taken to the New World by Protestant Dutch settlers of the 17th Century New Amsterdam (eventually New York) and in the ensuing centuries Sint Niklaas became Santa Claus.