Introducing the Patron Saint
When we usher in the Christmas season, we can’t help but identify the festivities with the jolly old elf known as Santa Claus. The legend of St. Nick is attributed to the works of St. Nicholas, a Christian Bishop who took care of the sick and poor. Born in Patara around 280, St. Nicholas lived in what is now present-day Turkey. Known to give gifts to those in need, the story of his gift giving grew to the point that he was eventually transformed into the North Pole’s Santa Claus.
A Saint of the Poor and Needy
St. Nichols lost his parents when he was a young man and used his inheritance to assist the poor and needy. His devotion to the Christian faith led to his role as bishop of Myra. Many legends surround St. Nicholas’ life, one of which tells the story of how he aided three needy sisters. Because their father could not pay for their dowries, he decided to sell them into a life of servitude.
Christmas Shoes and Stockings
During three separate occasions, St. Nicholas secretly placed a bag of gold within the sisters’ house. On each occasion, the bag was said to land in shoes that had been set before the fire to dry. This legend led to the custom of hanging stockings before the fireplace.
A Protector of the Wrongfully Accused
In some accounts, it is said that gold balls were placed in the house, which now are represented by the oranges that are given during Christmastime. Part of the money was used so one of the daughters could marry. It was also said that St. Nicholas saved the lives of three men who were wrongfully imprisoned and given the sentence of death.
The Story of Basilios
One of the accounts regarding the life of St. Nicholas was told a long time after he died. It is said that the people of Myra were commemorating the saint on the eve of his feast day when pirates suddenly descended onto the community. Not only did the rebels snatch treasures from the church in town, they also kidnapped a boy named Basilios. The emir of the group had chosen Basilios to be his cupbearer. After the kidnapping, Basilios was relegated to waiting on the king and bringing his wine a cup of gold.
During the following year, the parents of Basilios grieved the loss of their child, feeling extreme sadness when the feast day again approached. While Basilios’ mother would not attend the event, she did observe the celebration at home, saying several prayers for Basilios.
As Basilios was fulfilling his tasks for the emir, he suddenly was lifted up and away and set back in his home. St. Nicholas appeared and blessed the boy before he was whisked away. This legend is the first story told about St. Nicholas’ role in protecting the lives of children.
The Story of Saint Nicholas and the Three Young Scholars
Another story of St. Nicholas relates the tale of three boys who were traveling to a university to study theology. On their way to their studies in Athens, they were robbed and murdered by an evil innkeeper who hid their remains in a pickling tub.
The Patron Protector of Children
In his travels, it was said that Bishop Nichols stopped at the very inn where the crime had taken place. During the night he dreamed of the heinous activity. After summoning the innkeeper, Nicholas prayed to God to restore the three boys to life. His appeals were answered and the boys were returned to life and their families. As a result, St. Nicholas is considered the Patron Protector of Children.
The Patron Saint of Sailors
Some accounts speak of St. Nicholas and the sea. When Nicholas was very young, he made a pilgrimage to the holy land. Being devout in his faith, he wanted to deeply experience the life of Jesus – his passion and resurrection. He returned by way of the sea and ran into a mighty storm. While the winds and waves raged, Nicholas quietly prayed. A calm came over the sailing vessel, sparing the lives of both the sailors and Nicholas. Therefore, St. Nicholas is known as the Patron Saint of Ocean Travelers and Sailors as well.
A Friend to Those in Need
Other accounts of St. Nicholas speak of Nicholas saving people from famines too. He is known as a protector of and friend to anyone in trouble or need. Within 100 years of his death, the former bishop was honored as a saint.
Churches Commemorate the Saint Worldwide
Because he is known as a Patron Saint of Sailors, many chapels have been built at seaports in St. Nicholas’ name. His influence spans many countries, east and west, and he is commemorated in churches over the globe. Churches named in his honor include approximately four hundred in England, twenty-some churches in the Netherlands, several hundred chapels in Belgium and at least thirty places of worship in Rome.
A Place of Pilgrimage
Nicholas’ tomb in Myra also became a popular place for pilgrimages. In the spring of 1087 however, sailors were successful in spirting away St. Nicholas’ bones and placing them in Bari, a seaport located in southeast Italy. The townspeople built a church over the crypt of St. Nicholas’ new resting place. Since that time, thousands have journeyed to the Basilica di San Nicola to commemorate a saint who was known to rescue sailors and famine victims and protect children and prisoners as well.
A Role Model for the Compassionate Life
Because of his generosity and compassion, many miracles are said to have occurred because of Saint Nicholas’ intercession. The Saint is considered to be the role model for the compassionate life.
Feast Day in the Netherlands
St. Nicholas’ feast day occurs annually on December 6 – celebrated to keep alive the stories of the Saint’s love and goodness. The date is still a major day in Europe for merrymaking the giving of presents. For example, on the eve of the feast day in the Netherlands, the Saint is commemorated with the sharing of small gifts, candies and riddles. Children leave hay and carrots in their shoes for St. Nicholas’ horse in the hope of receiving a small gift in return.
Immigrant children from the Netherlands who landed in America referred to St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas or by his nickname, which was Sinter Klaas. His love to give gifts was introduced to the American continent in the 18 th century.
A Part of the Christmas Tradition
In America, the name Sinter Klaas eventually became the name of Santa Claus. Instead of giving small gifts on December 6 though, the American “Santa Claus” became part of the Christmas tradition. He transformed even further with the writing of the poem by Clement Clarke Moore in 1820.
Santa Claus Dons His Red Suit and White Fur Trim
The poem, entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” described “Santa Claus” as being a heavy, jolly man who leaves presents by traveling down people’s chimneys. The concept of Santa was further developed in 1881 by the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who gave the bearer of gifts a red suit accented with white fur trim.
An Ever-popular Saint
Because of some of the miracles attributed to the actual St. Nicholas, the Saint is sometimes referred to as “Nicholas the Wonder Worker.” However, Saint Nicholas did not always experience such an idyllic existence. He was imprisoned as a bishop and, when released, had to face the ugliness of Arian heresy. Nevertheless, the Patron Saint and Protector of Children enjoys a popularity that knows no bounds.
A Well-revered Subject
Saint Nicholas is said to have been depicted in artist paintings more often than any of the other saints, with the exception of Mary. Martin Luther referenced the bearer of gifts as Christkindl, which over time was re-pronounced as Kris Kringle – synonymous with Santa Claus now.
Paying a Debt of Gratitude
At Christmastime, we can’t help but pay homage to the Saint. Thanks to his goodness and generosity, the Christmas season is all the more joyful and meaningful.
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