Saint Nicholas of Bari
By Melissa Pimentel
Saint Nicholas was born of Greek heritage in Asia Minor during the third century (around 270 AD) in the city of Patara, which was a port on the Mediterranean Sea. He lived in Myra, Lycia (part of modern day Turkey) when the region was Greek in its heritage and culture and was part of the Roman diocese of Asia. He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents named Epiphanius and Johanna according to some accounts and Theophanes and Nonna according to others. Nicholas was very religious from a young age. His parents died from an epidemic while he was still young. They left him well off and he was determined to devote his inheritance to works of charity. An opportunity soon arose when a citizen of Patara who had three daughters to support lost all of his money. The daughters couldn’t find husbands due to their poverty so their father was going to give them over to prostitution. When Nicholas heard of this he took a bag of gold and, undercover, threw it into an open window at the man’s house. It was a dowry for the eldest girl and she was soon married. As time went on Nicholas did the same for the second and then the third daughter. The last time the father was watching. He recognized Nicholas and was overwhelmed with gratitude. He kissed his feet and said, “Nicholas, why dost thou conceal thyself from me? Though art my helper and he who has delivered my soul and my daughters’ from hell.”
After his parents died his uncle, who was also named Nicholas, raised Saint Nicholas. His uncle was the bishop of Patara and was the person who ordained him priest and appointed him abbot of a monastery. St. Nicholas followed the words of our Lord, "lay up treasure for yourself in Heaven," by praying every day, by fasting, and by performing good deeds. God was so pleased that He worked many miracles through Nicholas. People began to call him a “wonderworker”. They were so inspired by his life of service to others that many of them, too, began to lead holy lives filled with good deeds.
He had a reputation for gift giving such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, thus becoming the model for Santa Claus. A church in Myra had fallen vacant and Saint Nicholas was chosen bishop. In that station he became famous by his extraordinary piety and many miracles. He suffered imprisonment of faith and made a glorious confession in the latter part of the persecution.
The clergy and people of the province were in session to elect a new bishop. St. Nicholas was indicated by God as the man they should choose. This was at the time of the persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century and, “As he was the chief priest of the Christians of this town and preached the truths of faith with a holy liberty, the divine Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians. When religious Constatine, chosen by God, assumed the imperial diadem of the Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with them Nicholas, who then returned to Myra.”
He was the guardian of his people in temporal affairs as well. The governor Eustathius had taken a bribe to condemn to death three innocent men. At the time fixed for their execution Nicholas came to the place, stayed the hands of the executioner, and released the prisoners. Then he turned to Eustathius and did not cease to reproach him until he admitted his crime and expressed his penitence. There were three imperial officers present who were on their way to duty in Phrygia. Later, when they were back again in Constantinople, the jealousy of Ablavius caused them to be imprisoned on false charges and an order for their death was procured from the Emperor Constantine. When the officers heard this they remembered the example they had witnessed of the powerful love of justice of the Bishop of Myra and they prayed to God that through his merits and by his instrumentality they might yet be saved. That night, St. Nicholas appeared in a dream to Constantine and told him with threats to release the three innocent men. Ablavius experienced the same thing. In the morning they compared notes and the condemned men were summoned and questioned. When Constantine heard that they had called on the name of Nicholas of Myra who had appeared to him, Constantine set them free. He sent them to the Bishop with a letter asking him not to threaten him any more but to pray for the peace of the world. For a long time this was the most famous miracle of St. Nicholas, and at the time of St. Methodius was the only thing generally known about him.
Saint Nicholas is said to be just about everyone's saint. He is surely named the patron saint of more causes than any other saint. Nicholas has been chosen as the special protector or guardian of a great many classes of people, cities, churches, and even countries. Patron saints have lived a life that is a worthy example of how to faithfully follow Jesus Christ and, as part of the communion of saints; they intercede on behalf of those who call upon them.
In the West Nicholas is most widely known as the patron saint of children. Many of his stories tell of children rescued from calamity and returned to the care and keeping of their families. In France the most familiar story, both told and sung, is of three little children lured into the clutches of an evil butcher and rescued by St. Nicholas. Other stories, as well, tell of children who disappeared, were kidnapped, fell into a well, or suffered some other disaster all to be delivered through the good offices of St. Nicholas. These accounts of a child forcibly taken from parents, followed by a time of grieving and despair, then the miraculous return of the child, have profound and universal appeal. This makes Nicholas the much-valued Guardian of Children. It is no wonder he is the beloved patron saint of children.
St. Nicholas is one of the most popular and well-known saints in history. It is the image of St. Nicholas more often than that of any other that is found on Byzantine seals. In the later middle ages nearly four hundred churches were dedicated in his honor in England alone and he is said to have been represented by Christian artists more frequently than any saint except Our Lady. St. Nicholas is venerated as the patron saint of several classes of people, especially in the East of sailors, and in the West of children. The first of these patronages is probably due to the legend that during his lifetime, he appeared to storm tossed mariners who invoked his aid off the coast of Lycia and brought them safely to port. Sailors in the Aegean and Ionian seas, following a common Eastern custom, had their ‘star of St. Nicholas’ and wished one another a good voyage in the phrase, "May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.”
Curiously enough the greatest popularity of St. Nicholas is found neither in the eastern Mediterranean nor north-western Europe, great as that was, but in Russia. Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favorite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbors. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea.” In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognizable saints and December 6 finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all of Greece.
On the eve of his feast day, Albanians will light a candle and abstain from meat, preparing a feast of roasted lamb and pork, to be served to guests after midnight. Guests will greet each other saying, “Nata e Shen'Kollit ju nihmoftë!” (“May the Night of Saint Nicholas help you!”) St. Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD and was buried in his Episcopal city of Myra. By the time of Justinian there was a basilica built in his honor at Constantinople. An anonymous Greek wrote in the tenth century, "the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the furthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. Images of him are set up, panegyrics preached and festivals celebrated. All Christians, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, reverence his memory and call upon his protection. His favors, which know no limit of time and continue from age to age, are poured out over all the earth; the Scythians know them, as do the Indians and the barbarians, the Africans as well as the Italians.” In 1087 his relics were translated to Bari, in Italy, and for this reason he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. The great veneration with which St. Nicholas has been honored for many ages and the number of altars and churches that have been dedicated in his memory everywhere are testimonials to his holiness and of the glory that he enjoys with God.
I believe that St. Nicholas teaches us how to be better people and give more to others who are in greater need. I believe he teaches us the importance of protecting the people who are unable to protect themselves and look out for one another. He teaches us that if we do what is right and just then others will follow our lead. He teaches us to always have faith and to always trust in the Lord.