St.Nicholas, History and Modern Influences

His Life

Nicholas was born a Greek in Asia Minor during the third century, 270 AD, in the city of Patara, a port on the Mediterranean Sea. He lived in Myra, the only son of wealthy Christian parents who brought him up as a devout Christian. His parents died in an epidemic when Nicholas was still young and he was then brought up by his uncle -also Nicholas-who was the Bishop of Patara. Nicholas observed God’s rule of giving generously to the poor and needy and used his entire inheritance to this end. His reputation went before him and whilst still a young man, Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra. His ordination to the priesthood being “rushed through” so that he could become Bishop. As Bishop he was well known for his concern for the needy, his love for children and his concern for sailors. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian who persecuted Christians, Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith and exiled. He was released in 325AD. He died on the 6th December 343AD aged 73 in Myra. The 6th December became the feast day of St.Nicholas. His remains were buried in his cathedral church in Myra and this is where a liquid substance called “manna” formed in his grave, this substance was said to have had healing powers and many devoted pilgrims came here to visit his resting place. Nicholas became a saint many years before the regular canonization procedures of the 10th century began. His name and reputation as a man who lived his life dedicated to Christ and to the needy of this world, was spread by sailors who took the stories of his life to all the ports where they sailed into, this is why there are so many churches dedicated to St.Nicholas in seaports all over the world.

The moving of his remains

In 1071 Romanus IV, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire faced battle with Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks, Romanus suffered a humiliating defeat and as a result the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor. Myra was overtaken and the people were fearful that the tomb of St,Nicholas would be destroyed and looted. Sailors from Bari took advantage of the confusion in the city and seized most the saint’s remains and took them back to Bari where they built a shrine to St.Nicholas. There are now two churches at the shrine, one Catholic and the other Orthodox.

Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas’ skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and brought to Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido. This tradition was confirmed in two scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton.

Legends of his Goodness

There are many legends linked with St.Nicholas, and many of them have been proved to have historical truth to them or at least to the main facts of the story even if some of the lesser facts differ. One such legend, and one of the most famous, is of the poor man’s three daughters. In those days it was customary to offer a dowry to prospective suitors and those unable to provide a dowry were often sold into slavery. This poor man was a good man and feared for his daughters but could not see how he would be able to provide them with a dowry. Three times a bag of money was left at his house and this he used for their dowries. Other stories tell of the bags of money being tossed into the house and splitting open and the coins landing inside shoes and stockings hanging up at the fireside to dry, thus the legend of St.Nicholas as a giver of gifts was born.

Another story tells how an evil butcher waylays and murders three young boys and puts their bodies into a large barrel to use as meat, St.Nicholas prays to God and the three young men are restored to life in answer to the saint’s prayers. It is through this story that St.Nicholas became the Protector of Children.

During a great famine that the Bishop of Myra experienced, a ship was in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. He invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not take any damage for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find: the weight of the load had not changed, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.

During his time as Bishop, Nicholas visited the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and on returning, by sea, there was a terrible storm that threatened to sink the ship and take the lives of all who were aboard. Nicholas calmly sank to his knees and prayed to God for a safe journey, whereupon the storm abated and the journey continued in peace. From this St.Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and ships.

The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honoured by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students in various countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe (Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia), as well as in parts of Western Europe (Belgium, France, Netherlands, Portugal). He is also the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Burgas(Bulgaria), Beit Jala, Fribourg,Huguenots, Kozani, Liverpool, Paternopoli, Sassari, Siggiewi, and Lorraine. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.