St. Nicholas

Feastday: December 6

Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος, Hagios ["holy"] Nicolaos ["victory of the people"]) (270-6 December 343),[3][4] also called Nikolaos of Myra, was a historic 4th-century saint and Greek[5] Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Greek: Νικόλαος ο Θαυματουργός, Nikolaos o Thaumaturgos). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of "Saint Nikolaos". His reputation evolved among the faithful, as was common for early Christian saints.[6] In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. His feastday is 6 December [O.S. 19 December].

The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honored by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students in Greece, Belgium, France, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Russia, the Republic of Macedonia, Slovakia, Serbia, and Montenegro. He is also the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, 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.
Life

Nicholas was born a Greek[7][8][9] in Asia Minor during the third century in the Greek city of Patara[10][11][12] which was a port on the Mediterranean Sea[12] and was located in Myra, Lycia, a Greek province of Asia Minor[13] (part of modern-day Demre Turkey), at a time when the region was Greek in its heritage,[12] culture and outlook and was part of the Roman province of Asia.[12] He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents named Epiphanus (Επιφάνιος) and Johanna (Ιωάννα)according to some accounts[14] and Theophanes (Θεοφάνης) and Nonna (Νονά) according to others. [12] He was very religious from an early age[9] and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young and he was raised by his uncle-also named Nicholas-who was the bishop of Patara. He tonsured the young Nicholas as a reader, and later as presbyter (priest). Nicholas also spent a stint at a monastery named Holy Sion, which had been founded by his uncle.
Translation of the relics

On 26 August 1071 Romanus IV, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 1068-1071), faced Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks (reigned 1059-1072) in the Battle of Manzikert. The battle ended in humiliating defeat and capture for Romanus. As a result the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor to the invading Seljuk Turks. The Byzantines would regain its control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081-1118). But early in his reign Myra was overtaken by the Islamic invaders. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari in Apulia seized the remains of the saint from his burial church in Myra, over the objections of the Orthodox monks. Returning to Bari, they brought the remains with them and cared for them. The remains arrived on 9 May 1087. There are numerous variations of this account. In some versions those taking the relics are characterized as thieves or pirates, in others they are said to have taken them in response to a vision wherein Saint Nicholas himself appeared and commanded that his relics be moved in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest.

Vials of myrrh from his relics have been taken all over the world for centuries, and can still be obtained from his church in Bari. Currently at Bari, there are two churches at his shrine, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox.

According to a local legend, some of his remains were brought by three pilgrims to a church in what is now Nikolausberg in the vicinity of the city of Göttingen, Germany, giving the church and village its name.

There is also a Venetian legend (preserved in the Morosini Chronicle) that most of the relics were actually taken to Venice (where a great church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido), only an arm being left at Bari. This tradition was overturned in the 1950s when a scientific investigation of the relics in Bari revealed a largely intact skeleton.

It is said that in Myra the relics of Saint Nicholas each year exuded a clear watery liquid which smells like rose water, called manna (or myrrh), which is believed by the faithful to possess miraculous powers. After the relics were brought to Bari, they continued to do so, much to the joy of the new owners. Even up to the present day, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on 6 December (the Saint's feast day) by the clergy of the basilica. The myrrh is collected from a sarcophagus which is located in the basilica vault and could obtained in the shop nearby.

On 28 December 2009, the Turkish Government announced that it would be formally requesting the return of St Nicholas's bones to Turkey from the Italian government.[15][16] Turkish authorities have cited the fact that St Nicolas himself wanted to be buried at his episcopal town. They also state that his remains were illegally removed from Turkey.
Legends and folklore

Another legend[17] tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. Another version of this story, possibly formed around the eleventh century, claims that the butcher's victims were instead three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them, and was advised by his wife to dispose of them by turning them into meat pies. The Saint saw through this and brought the men back to life.

However, in his most famous exploit,[18] a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him but being too modest to help the man in public (or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.

One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

The miracle of wheat multiplication

During a great famine that the Bishop of Myra experienced, a ship was is in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Byzantium. 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. The removed wheat in Myra was even enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.[19]

Saint Nicholas Day

The tradition of Saint Nicholas Day, usually on 6 December (non-orthodox countries [O.S. 19 December (in most Orthodox countries)], is a festival for children in many countries in Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American Santa Claus, as well as the Anglo-Canadian and British Father Christmas, derive from these legends. "Santa Claus" is itself derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas.

France

St. Nicolas comes primarily in Alsace, Lorraine and Nord-Pas-de-Calais (French Flanders). St. Nicolas is patron of Lorraine. A little donkey carries baskets filled with children's gifts, cookies and sweets. The whole family gets ready for the saint's arrival on December 6, with grandparents telling stories of the saint. The most popular one is of three children who wandered away and got lost. Cold and hungry, a wicked butcher lured them into his shop where he attacked and salted them away in a large tub. Through the intervention of St. Nicolas the boys were restored to their families. This story led to Nicolas being recognized as the protector of children. In France statues and paintings often portray this event, showing the saint with children in a barrel. The evil butcher became Père Fouettard, who has followed St Nicolas in shame ever since. This story is also a popular French children's song. Meanwhile bakeries and home kitchens are a hive of activity as spiced gingerbread cookies and mannala, brioche shaped like the good saint, are baked. At school children learn St. Nicolas songs and poems and draw and paint St. Nicolas pictures and crafts. Saint Nicolas visits nursery schools, giving children chocolates and sometimes even a little present. Though Père Fouettard carries switches to threaten the children, what they really fear is that he may advise Saint Nicolas to pass them by on his gift-giving rounds.

Malta

In Malta, St. Nicholas is the patron Saint of the Village of Siggiewi. The ruins of the former parish church, dedicated to St Nicholas of Bari are still visible today. Lately, great restoration works have been carried out and retrieved its old glory. The baroque parish church, dedicated to the same saint, was erected by the villagers who raised the necessary funds between the years 1676 to 1693. It was designed by the Maltese architect, Lorenzo Gafà but underwent some changes throughout the years. The portico and naves were added by Professor Nicola Żammit in the latter half of the 19th century. He is kind to all people.

Ireland

The saint who inspired the legend of Santa Claus is believed to have been buried in Newtown Jerpoint in Kilkenny some 800 years ago. Originally buried in Myra in modern day Turkey, his body was moved from there to Italy in 1169, but said to have been taken afterwards to Ireland by Nicholas de Frainet, a distant relative. The church of Saint Nicholas was built by his family there and dedicated to the memory of the saint. A slab grave on the ground of this church claims to hold his remains. There is a yearly Mass in relation to the memory of Saint Nicholas, but otherwise the celebration is quite low key..

Italy

St. Nicholas (San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari, where it is believed he is buried. Its deeply felt celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola, held on the 7-9 of May. In particular on 8 May the relics of the saint are carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare). On 6 December there is a ritual called the Rito delle nubili. The same tradition is currently observed in Sassari, where during the day of Saint Nicholas, patron of the city, gifts are given to young brides who need help before getting married.

In the provinces of Trieste, Belluno and Trentino St. Nicholas (San Nicolò) is celebrated with gifts given to children on the morning of 6 December and with a fair called Fiera di San Nicolò[21] during the first weeks of December. Depending on the cultural background, in some families this celebration is more important than Christmas. Trieste is a city on the sea, being one of the main ports of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is influenced mainly by Italian, Slovenian and German cultures, but also Greek and Serbian.

Spain

St. Nicholas ("San Nicolás") is the patron of the Valladolid, one of the two medieval universities of Spain.

Portugal

In one city (Guimarães) in Portugal, St. Nicholas (São Nicolau) has been celebrated since the Middle Ages as the patron saint of high-school students, in the so called Nicolinas, a group of festivities that occur from 29 November to 7 December each year. In the rest of Portugal this is not celebrated.

The Netherlands, Belgium, and Lower Rhineland (Germany)

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve (5 December) is the primary occasion for gift-giving, when his reputed birthday is celebrated.

In the days leading up to 5 December (starting when Saint Nicholas has arrived in the Netherlands by steamboat in late November), young children put their shoes in front of the chimneys and sing Sinterklaas songs. Often they put a carrot or some hay in the shoes, as a gift to St. Nicholas' horse. (In recent years the horse has been named Amerigo in The Netherlands and Slechtweervandaag in Flanders.) The next morning they will find a small present in their shoes, ranging from sweets to marbles or some other small toy. On the evening of 5 December, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child who has behaved him- or herself in the past year (in practice, just like with Santa Claus, all children receive gifts without distinction). This is often done by placing a bag filled with presents outside the house or living room, after which a neighbour or parent bangs the door or window, pretending to be Sinterklaas' assistant. Another option is to hire or ask someone to dress up as Sinterklaas and deliver the presents personally. Sinterklaas wears a bishop's robes including a red cape and mitre and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dress, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' ("Black Petes") or "Père Fouettard" in the French-speaking part of Belgium.

The myth is, if a child had been naughty, the Zwarte Pieten put all the naughty children in sacks, and Sinterklaas took them to Spain (it is believed that Sinterklaas comes from Spain, where he returns after 5 December). Therefore, many Sinterklaas songs still allude to a watching Zwarte Piet and a judging Sinterklaas.

In the past number of years, there has been a recurrent discussion about the politically incorrect nature of the Moorish helper. In particular Dutch citizens with backgrounds from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles might feel offended by the Dutch slavery history connected to this emblem and regard the Zwarte Pieten to be racist. Others state that the black skin color of Zwarte Piet originates in his profession as a chimneysweep, hence the delivery of packages though the chimney. [22]

In recent years, Christmas (along with Santa Claus) has been pushed by shopkeepers as another gift-giving festival, with some success; although, especially for young children, Saint Nicholas' Eve is still much more important than Christmas. The rise of Father Christmas (known in Dutch as de Kerstman) is often cited as an example of globalisation and Americanisation.[23]

On the Frisian islands (Waddeneilanden), the Sinterklaas feast has developed independently into traditions very different from the one on the mainland.[24]
Germany

In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot called Nikolaus-Stiefel (Nikolaus boot) outside the front door on the night of 5 December. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts and sweets overnight, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good, polite and helpful the last year. If they were not, they will have a tree branch (Rute) in their boots instead. Sometimes a disguised Nikolaus also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they have been good (sometimes ostensibly checking his golden book for their record), handing out presents on a per-behavior basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.

But for some children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Ruprecht), who would threaten to beat the children for misbehavior as using this myth to 'bring up cheek children' for a better, good behavior. Any kind of punishment isn't really following and just an antic legend. Knecht Ruprecht was equipped with eight deer legs. In German speaking parts of Switzerland, where he is called Schmutzli, he threatens to put badly behaved children in a sack and bring them away to the dark forest. In other accounts he throws the sack into the river, drowning the naughty children!