St. Nicholas: Bad Ass Super Saint / by Chris Hall

If God dies, at least we’ll still have St. Nicholas.  Russian proverb.

Nicholas was an early Christian and Bishop of Myra, Greece (now Demre, in modern day Turkey).  Because of his charity and also because of the many miracles that were attributed to him during his life, he was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.  St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, children, merchants, archers, repentant thieves and murderers, brewers, pawnbrokers, students, merchants, judges, the poor, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and many more. . . A full list of the people who St Nicholas protects can be found here:  http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/people/

Nicholas was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed ritual fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Nicholas is reported to have been a lean man, and not the jolly old elf of Santa Claus legend.  Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Nicholas suffered for his faith, and at one point was exiled and imprisoned.  Some icons show him as having dark skin, so yes; there is a chance that Santa Claus is a black man.  

St Nicholas Reputation for Gift Giving

Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift giving and would often put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  This habit, along with his protection of children, led to his being the inspiration for Santa Claus (Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklass,” a corruption of “Saint Nikolaos.”  In one of his most famous gift giving exploits, Nicholas discovered a poor man with three young daughters.  The poor man could not afford a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would remain unmarried, and might possibly have to resort to prostitution.  Nicholas decided to help them anonymously, either out of modesty or possibly to save them the humiliation of having to accept charity.  As the eve of the first two girls coming of age, Nicholas would toss a bag of gold coins through the open window.  On the eve of his third daughter’s birthday, the poor man decided to lay in wait to discover his secret benefactor.  Nicholas learned of the plan, and instead tossed the third bag into the chimney.  The youngest daughter had hung up her stockings to dry near the hearth, and the bag of gold somehow landed in one of the stockings.

St Nicholas Stays an Execution

One day while out visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from his home city in Myra came to him and told him of how the ruler Eustathius had wrongfully condemned three Knights to death.  On reaching the outskirts of the city, Nicholas learned that the prisoner’s execution by beheading was to happen that morning.  Nicholas ran to the executioner’s field and stayed the executioner’s sword, which he then threw to the ground.  Nicholas ordered the release of the innocent prisoners and then went to confront Eustathius.  Eustathius confessed his crime and Nicholas absolved him after a period of penance.

St Nicholas Resurrects Three Murdered Children

Nicholas is attributed as having miraculous powers, as well.  In one legend, during a terrible famine, an evil butcher lured three children (or in some stories, three traveling students) to his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure.  He planned to sell the meat as ham.  Nicholas, who was visiting the region to care for the hungry, dreamed of the crime, and went to the house of the evil butcher.  Nicholas them resurrected the three dead boys from the barrel.  

St Nicholas and the Miracle of the Wheat

According to another legend, during the same famine (between 311 and 312), a ship anchored off Myra which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople.  Nicholas implored the sailors to share some of the wheat with the starving people of Myra.  The sailors were reluctant to share because they knew that the cargo had been weighed and any deviation would be reported.  Nicholas promised the sailors that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, so sailors agreed and unloaded a share of the wheat.  When the sailors arrived in Constantinople, they found that the wheat weighed the same, as if nothing was taken.  The people of Myra, however had enough wheat for two full years.

St. Nicholas Conquers the Sea

Returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Nicholas found himself aboard a sinking ship in a storm.  Nicholas prayed, the seas calmed, and the ship was rescued.  This was only the first of many episodes which Nicholas figures in the rescuing of ships and sailors.  Nicholas would become the patron saint of sailors, who in return would spread Nicholas’ popularity around the world.  In another legend, a ship in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was caught in a storm.  The sailors were unable to move the ship to safer waters.  The sailors, hearing of Nicholas’ earlier interventions, prayed for Nicholas to help.  Nicholas actually appeared over the ship and then gave the sailors a helping hand, retying and strengthening the ropes holding the masts, and guiding the ship to safety.  As soon as the ship and sailors were rescued, the Nicholas vanished into thin air.  Because of the many stories of Nicholas coming to the aid of ships and sailors, Nicholas became known as “The Lord of the Sea,” a Christianized version of Poseidon.  

Posthumous Activities

After Nicholas’s death, it did not take long for him to be sainted.  Meanwhile, the miracles continued.  One evening the townspeople of Myra were celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day, on December 6th, when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into town and ransacked the place.  The pirates stole everything of value, and even took a young boy, Basilios, away to sell as a slave.  The young boy became the slave of the Emir, and would often serve the Emir wine in a beautiful golden cup.  Devastated by the lost of their only child, Basilios’ parents grieved for a whole year, until the next St. Nicholas feast.  Basilios’ parents then prayed to St. Nicholas for Basilios’ safety.  St Nicholas then appeared to Basilios and whisked the terrified boy away, and returned him to his parents.  The whole thing happened so quickly, Basilios was still holding the Emir’s golden cup.

St. Nicholas’s Magic Bones

St. Nicholas tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.  Because of the many wars in the region, many Christians became concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult.  For both the religious and commercial advantages that come with having a major pilgrimage site, the cities of Bari and Venice, Italy, began to compete with each other for hosting the saint’s bones.  In 1087, 62 pirates from Bari resolved to settle the matter, when one of them reportedly had a vision of St. Nicholas commanding him to recover his bones in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest.  The pirates, or sailors (depending on who is telling the tale) in a rush because of the resistance from Greek Orthodox monks, collected only half of the bones, and re-interned them in Bari, in Southern Italy.  Venetian sailors got what was left of St Nicholas during the First Crusade and placed the remains in a newly built church to St. Nicholas on the Lido.

While in Myra, the relics of St. Nicholas began to exude a clear watery liquid, smelling of rose water or myrrh.  The locals called it manna.  The mysterious manna was said to possess miraculous healing powers.  St Nicholas’ bones in Bari continue to ooze the magic potion, which is collected once a year by the clergy of the basilica on May 9th, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ re-internment.  Today you can purchase vials of St. Nicholas manna, economically diluted in Holy Water, in the basilica’s gift shop.

This is not Saint Nicholas' bones, but Alexander the Great's bones, as discovered by St. Sisoes.  Still, a nice illustration.

St. Nicholas Today

St. Nicholas continues to have an exciting afterlife in his incarnation as Father Christmas or Santa Claus.  There is the whole living at the North Pole thing, the elves that make toys, and of course the flying reindeer.  In the Netherlands Santa Claus is accompanied by a mischievous Moor (or more commonly a white Dutchman in blackface) named Black Pieter.  In parts of Germany and Austria, Santa Claus gets help from a demon named Krampus, who punishes all the wicked children.  While in the United States, Santa Claus drinks Coca-Cola gets help from a flying reindeer with a glowing red nose.

In 1993, historians believe they had found the original tomb of St. Nicholas on the Turkish island of Gemile.  On December 28, 2009, the Turkish government announced that they would be making a formal request to return St. Nicholas’ skeletal remains back to Turkey, saying his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.  There is no word as to how the people of Venice and Bari responded.  Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, and although officially a secular state, they have had difficulty accepting St. Nicholas.  In 2000 a Russian bronze sculpture of St. Nicholas in orthodox vestments was erected in Demre (formally St. Nicholas’ hometown of Myra).  Buses of Russian tourists arrived everyday to Demre, who would then knell and pray at the base of the statue.  In 2005, the city removed the statue and replaced it with a brightly painted plastic resin statue of the more secular Santa Claus.  This caused an international uproar, but the city held its ground until Christmas Day, 2008, when they replaced the statue a second time, this time with a fiberglass version of St Nicholas with Turkish facial features and clothing.  The controversy continues, however, as some have pointed out that St. Nicholas was Greek, and the Turks did not arrive in the region until the 11th century.