St. Nicholas the Wonderworker
Early in the Advent season we celebrate a feast that has been popular for centuries in Christian countries, especially in northern Europe. On December 6, around the world, St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (Fourth Century), is celebrated as the Patron of bakers, pawnbrokers, sailors, children, Greeks and Russians, a myriad of other causes , and even as the patron of prostitutes (to help them get out of their trade, of course)! In our over-commercialized culture that celebrates Jolly ol’ Saint Nicholas, it is important to realize that “Santa” is historically a saintly Catholic bishop from Myra, what is now Turkey.
Saint Nicholas has been a very popular inspiration to the faithful throughout the centuries; so popular, that in 1097 his relics became the object of an international tug-of-war. In one notorious example, some Italians from Bari, Italy literally stole his relics from his tomb in Myra, against the will of the local citizens, and transported them back to Bari. His cult grew in the West, and by 1400, St. Nicholas became the most popular non-biblical Saint in the Christian world.
Why is Saint Nicholas so loved and his prayers sought by so many? The Good Bishop was renowned for his great kindness and his generous aid to those in distress (not for being Santa Claus). Perhaps best known among the kind and miraculous acts attributed to him was saving three young girls from prostitution. When their desperate father, who had fallen from prosperity, could not provide dowries for them, Bishop Nicholas secretly provided their dowries by tossing bags of gold coins through the window at night. He is also credited with raising three murdered boys from the dead and saving sailors caught in stormy seas. It would take pages to tell of his generosity to beggars, the hungry people he fed, the naked he clothed, or the debtors that he delivered from prison. Hence, he is honored as the patron saint of children, unmarried girls, and sailors, and countless other causes.
Another important role of St. Nicholas is as the patron of bishops. During the persecutions of the 4th century, it is believed St. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured for the Faith. It is certain that the learned bishop was one of the key figures at the great Council of Nicaea in 325, which settled questions about the Arian heresy that claimed Christ was not divine. During the Council, faithful Nicholas, agitated at the outrageous heresy, reportedly slapped Arius (some say he pulled his beard) for which he was thrown in jail but was miraculously released. In all likelihood, he signed the Nicene Creed, which defines Christ’s divinity, and which is the same Creed that we Catholics proclaim every Sunday at Mass.
Our “Santa,” then, was an authentic Catholic bishop who argued for correct teaching about our Trinitarian God. He is known as the Gift Giver, and the gift of the truth was his first and most lasting gift to mankind.
Traditional celebrations of Saint Nicholas Day in Northern Europe include gifts left in children's shoes (the origin of our American Christmas stockings). Good children receive treats - candies, cookies, apples and nuts, while naughty children might receive lumps of coal. Sometimes coins are left in the shoes, reminiscent of the life-saving dowries the saint provided.
A fitting way to celebrate and to teach about St. Nicholas – in addition to enjoying the fun festivities - might be to plan a day as a family helping the poor. Children can choose some of their toys to give away; the family could make a trip to the grocery store to buy food for the food bank and/or spend some time in a service project. In addition, of course, the family can pray together to St. Nicholas for children and all those in need.
Saint Nicholas, your service as a bishop included not only teaching correctly the mysteries of our faith but also generous and humble charity in alleviating the material needs of your neighbor. Help all of us to combine good theology with Christian action like you did.
St. Nicholas Center