St Nicholas gets his act together   

Everyone knows that the portly, apple-cheeked, white-bearded, crimson and ermine-garbed gentleman who spreads gifts under the Christmas tree is really St Nicholas in mufti. The Dutch in colonial New York called him Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas, which became Santa Claus amongst 19th Century English-speakers.

But who was St Nicholas? The sad truth is that his life is so shrouded in legend that the real man has nearly vanished. We know the bare bones of his life, but little more for certain. The bones are in fact the most certain. They rest in a magnificent cathedral in Bari, an Adriatic port on the heel of the Italian boot.

In Italy, however, St Nicholas is only an honoured guest. He was born in Patara, a town in the ancient region of Lycia, now the southern coast of Turkey, around the year 270. He entered a monastery and eventually became an abbot and later archbishop of the Lycian city of Myra. According to records compiled in the time of Pope Gregory the Great about 250 years later, he had suffered and been imprisoned under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, but without being martyred. He was also said to have participated in the great Council of Nicaea in 325, although contemporary records do not mention him. He died on a sixth of December between 345 and 352.

Nicholas’s relics were preserved with great veneration in Myra until 1087, when the citizens of the distant city of Bari decided that they could take better care of him. There also may have wanted to boost local tourism by adding a new saint to the local highlights.

Not many pilgrims were making their way to Myra at the time. It had become a political no-man’s-land, a nearly deserted city contested by the Byzantine emperor and the Seljuk Turks. The Barians dispatched an expedition. Their sailors forced their way into the cathedral, hacked their way through protesting monks, smashed the vault, stole the saint’s bones and brought them home.

This turned out to be the 11th century equivalent of winning the right to host the Olympics. Bari instantly became a place of pilgrimage and Myra declined even further and is now known as Demre. A local archaeologist, Professor Nevzat Çevik, has called upon the Turkish government to demand the return of the bone of St Nicholas – even though no Christians today reside in Demre. The saint, he says, once declared: “I was born here, raised here and I will be buried here.” His wishes should be respected, says Professor Çevik.

In any case, thoroughly Muslim Demre hosts a St Nicholas festival every year attended by thousands of foreigners who visit a church restored by Russian Czar Alexander I in the 19th Century. No doubt the festival would be even more attractive if his casket were full of bones.

A forensic investigation of those bones, by the way, suggests that Nicholas was barely five feet tall and had a broken nose.

The details of the saint’s life are no foggier than those of many other saints of the early years of the Christian Church. Oral traditions were often handed on for hundreds of years before being written down. Threadbare fact was embroidered with entertaining and edifying anecdotes by pious imaginations.

The oldest life of St Nicholas now in existence, for example, dates from the Ninth Century, about 500 years after his death. If his miracles and prodigies seem far-fetched, they are not arguments against his existence or his holiness, but testimonies to the fervent devotion of centuries of Christians across Europe.

And his miracles are definitely numerous and colourful. The legends relate that as a babe he refused his mother’s milk on Wednesdays and Fridays as a penance. Miracle followed miracle from his very infancy.

For one of the most famous he was once regarded as the patron of unmarriageable girls. A nobleman in the town of Patara had three daughters. He had been reduced to such poverty that he could not provide them with dowries for their weddings and decided to sell them into prostitution to keep them from starvation. Nicholas heard of their plight and threw purses filled with gold into the house as each girl came of age.

From this incident arose the custom of giving children presents on his feastday, December 6, which is widespread in Europe. He is often depicted bearing three purses or three gold balls. The pawnbroker’s emblem can also be traced to this act of charity.

Another miracle has made him the patron of children. Two (in some versions three) young lads were sent from Asia to Athens to be schooled. Their father told them to pass through Myra to obtain the blessing of Nicholas. The boys chose their lodgings badly, however, for the landlord murdered them for their baggage. Being a thrifty fellow, he also dismembered them and placed their remains in a pickling tub, hoping to pass them off as salt pork in his meat pies.

The crime was miraculously revealed to the saint. He hurried to the inn and confronted the murderer. The man confessed his guilt and Nicholas implored the forgiveness of Heaven for his crime. Then, being led to the tub, he blessed it. The mangled limbs reunited and the boys returned to life. Although it looks distinctly odd today, the saint is often depicted in full episcopal regalia getting his act together next to a tub with three naked boys. Perhaps as a result, he is the patron of travellers, children — and bakers.

Nicholas is also said to have calmed a tempest on his way to the Holy Land and is thus the patron of sailors. Curiously he was also regarded as the patron of thieves, from an incident in which he persuaded some robbers to restore their booty. Considering the circumstances under which he reached his resting place, he may well feel a special interest in both groups.

 Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. Check out Jennifer Minicus’s review of “The True Saint Nicholas”, by William Bennett, in Reading Matters, a MercatorNet blog. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.