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5 things to know and share about St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas, by Jaroslav Čermák (1831-1878). / Credit: Galerie Art Praha via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Vatican City, Dec 6, 2023 / 04:00 am (CNA).

St. Nicholas, whose feast day is celebrated on Dec. 6, is well known as possibly the real-life inspiration for the beloved Christmas character of Santa Claus.

Not a lot is known about the historical Nicholas, who was bishop of Myra, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey, during the fourth century A.D.

But there are many stories and legends that explain his reputation as a just and upright man, charitable gift-giver, and miracle worker.

Here are five things to know and share about St. Nicholas:

1. The legend behind why St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children

Many people know that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, but they may not know why he has that title.

There is a grisly legend that says that during a famine in Myra, three young boys were lured into a butcher’s shop, where they were killed and then brined in a wooden barrel with the intention of being sold as “ham.” The good bishop worked a miracle, bringing the pickled children back to life and saving them from a gruesome fate.

Painting by Gentile da Fabriano, who lived in Italy from c. 1370 to 1427. Public Domain.

This story became the subject of many portrayals of Nicholas in art, especially during the Middle Ages. Some people believe depictions of Bishop Nicholas with the three boys led to his reputation as a protector of children.

The legend of the brining may explain how he also became, oddly, the patron saint of brewers and coopers (people who make wooden casks, barrels, vats, troughs, and similar containers from timber).

2. One of the foremost saints in the Russian Orthodox Church

St. Nicholas is a unifying figure among Catholics and Orthodox Christians since both groups venerate him.

But he is incredibly important in the Russian Orthodox Church, where he is known as St. Nicholas the Wonderworker for the many miracles attributed to him both during and after his life.

To the Orthodox, Nicholas is principally honored for his qualities as a holy bishop and good shepherd of his people.

Also, in their weekly liturgical cycle, which dedicates different days of the week to Jesus Christ and other saints, only three are specifically named: Mary, the Mother of God; John the Forerunner (known to Catholics as John the Baptist); and St. Nicholas.

Nicholas did not leave behind any theological writings, but when he was made a bishop, he is credited with saying that “this dignity and this office demand different usage, in order that one should live no longer for oneself but for others.”

3. Jolly ol’ St. Nicholas?

Because of his popularity among Orthodox Christians, St. Nicholas is a favorite subject in iconography.

But don’t be surprised if, among the hundreds of icons depicting him, you don’t see any merry dimples or a “round little belly.” He does have a white beard, though.

An icon of St. Nicholas painted in 1294 for a Russian Orthodox church on Lipno Island in northwestern Russia. Public Domain

4. Patron saint of unmarried people, fishermen, pawnbrokers, and the falsely accused

One of the most popular legends about Nicholas is that the saint, who is said to have come from a wealthy family, secretly helped a poor man with three daughters.

The father could not provide proper dowries for the girls to marry, and without husbands to support them, they might have been forced to turn to prostitution.

After learning about the situation, Nicholas secretly slipped a bag of gold coins through the family’s window while they were sleeping. He later left a second bag of coins, and likewise, another bag for the third daughter, at which point, the legend says, the father, who had waited up all night, “caught” Nicholas red-handed in his gift-giving. But Nicholas made him promise to keep the secret.

The story is likely the explanation for why the modern Christmas character of Santa Claus brings his gifts for children under the cover of night.

In artworks referencing this legend, the three bags of coins are often depicted as three golden balls. Images of gold balls were also used to mark the shops of pawnbrokers, which is probably how Nicholas came to be their patron saint, too.

A painting of St. Nicholas and Mary Magdalene by Antonello da Messina, created between 1475 and 1476. Public Domain

One of many miracles attributed to St. Nicholas happened at sea as he traveled aboard a boat to the Holy Land. Nicholas is a patron saint of sailors and travelers because he calmed the stormy waters that threatened their lives.

His patronage of the falsely accused can be attributed to an early story about his rescue of three innocent men moments before their execution. It is said that St. Nicholas, then bishop of Myra, boldly pushed away the executioner’s sword, released the men from their chains, and angrily reprimanded a juror who had taken a bribe to find them guilty.

5. Two feast days

Most people know that Nicholas’ feast day is celebrated on Dec. 6, the day he died in the year 343, but for East Slavs, as well as the people of Bari, Italy, May 9 is also an important day to celebrate the saint.

That date is the anniversary of the day that St. Nicholas’ relics were moved from Myra, in present-day Turkey, to Bari, not long after the Great Schism of Catholics and Orthodox in 1054 A.D.

Accounts differ over whether the transmission of the relics was theft or an attempt by Christian sailors to preserve the saint’s remains from destruction by the Turks. But whatever the real reason, the relics can still be venerated today in the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari.

Pope Francis visited Bari, in Italy’s southern region of Puglia, two times during his papacy. During both the 2018 and 2020 visits, he stopped in the basilica’s crypt to venerate St. Nicholas’ relics.

Perrant via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

The pontifical basilica is an important place of ecumenism, since the Catholic Church welcomes many Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians to the pilgrimage site. In the crypt, where St. Nicholas is buried, there is also an altar for the celebration of Orthodox and Eastern Catholic liturgies.

For Christians who follow the Julian calendar, as the Eastern Orthodox do, St. Nicholas’ principal feast day falls on Dec. 19. An Orthodox Divine Liturgy is usually celebrated at the Basilica of St. Nicholas that morning.

On Dec. 6, Catholics in Bari celebrate the beloved saint with Mass, concerts, and a procession of the saint’s statue through the city’s streets.

This article was originally published Dec. 6, 2022, and has been updated.

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