Saint Nicholas

Nicholas of Myra (270 - December 6, 346), better known as Saint Nicholas was a Lycian saint and Bishop of Myra in Lycia of Anatolia (modern-day Antalya province, Turkey, though at the time it was a Greek-speaking Roman Province). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercessions, he is also known as Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker.

He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and is now commonly identified with Santa Claus.  Although Nicholas was never canonized officialy,  his reputation simply evolved among the faithful, as was the custom in his time. Saint Nicholas is also known as Saint Nicholas of Bari because in 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari in southern Italy.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, children, and students in Croatia, Greece, Belgium, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, the Republic of Macedonia, Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro. The historical Saint Nicholas is honored by Catholic, Orthodox Christians and by various Anglican and Lutheran churches.

He is also the patron saint of Barranquilla (Colombia), Bari (Italy), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Beit Jala in the West Bank of Palestine, Liverpool (England) and Russia. In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Sancte Claus the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam, the Dutch name for New York City. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Eastern Roman Emperors, who protected his relics in Bari. So beloved is St. Nicholas by Russians, one commonly heard saying is "if God dies, at least we'll still have St. Nicholas."

Miracles and deeds connected with Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is a good man and the patron saint of sailors and is often called upon by mariners who are in danger of drowning or being shipwrecked. In Germany survivors of shipwrecks traditionally brought patches of sailcloth to Saint Nicholas as votive offerings. According to one legend, as a young man Nicholas went to study in Alexandria and on one of his sea voyages from Myra to Alexandria he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship's rigging in a storm. In a colorful version of this legend, Nicholas saved the man on his voyage back from Alexandria to Myra and upon his arrival took the sailor to the church. At that time the previous bishop of the city had just died and the church fathers were instructed in a dream to choose for their next bishop a "man who conquers".  While the saint was praying, the loose-lipped sailor went around telling how courageously he was saved by the man Nikei-Laos, upon which the church elders had no choice but to elect Nicholas as their new bishop.

Another legend 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.

In his most famous exploit however, 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. For his help to the poor, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop symbolize the three sacks of gold.

People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.
A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is considered the time of exchanging gifts in Greece.
In late medieval England, on Saint Nicholas' Day parishes held Yuletide "boy bishop" celebrations. As part of this celebration, youths performed the functions of priests and bishops, and exercised rule over their elders. Today, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European countries.

According to one source, medieval nuns used the night of December 6th to anonymously deposit baskets of food and clothes at the doorsteps of the needy.

According to another source, on December 6th every sailor or ex-sailor of the Low Countries (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbor towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy some hard-to-come-by goods, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas. This and his miracle of him resurrecting the three butchered children, made Saint Nicholas a patron saint of children and later students as well.

Among Albanians, Saint Nicholas is known as Shen'Kollë and is venerated by most Catholic families, even those from villages that are devoted to other saints. The Feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the eve of December 5th, known as Shen'Kolli i Dimnit (Saint Nicholas of Winter), as well as on the commemoration of the interring of his bones in Bari, the eve of May 8th, known as Shen'Kolli i Majit (Sant Nicholas of May). Albanian Catholics often swear by Saint Nicholas, saying "Pasha Shejnti Shen'Kollin!" ("May I see Holy Saint Nicholas!"), indicting the importance of this saint in Albanian culture, especially among the Albanians of Malësia. On the eve of his feast day, Albanians will light a candle and abstain from meat, preparing a feast of roasted lamb and pork, to be served to guests after midnight. Guests will greet each other, saying, "Nata e Shen'Kollit ju nihmoftë!" ("May the Night of Saint Nicholas help you!") and other such blessings. The bones of Albania's greatest hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, were also interred in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Lezha, Albania, upon his death. So strong and powerful was the mystery surrounding this figure and this holy church, that the invading Turks stole the bones and used them as amulets, so they are no longer there.

In iconography

Saint Nicholas is a popular subject portrayed on countless Eastern Orthodox icons, particularly Russian ones. He is depicted as an Orthodox bishop, wearing the omophorion and holding a Gospel Book, sometimes he is depicted wearing the Eastern Orthodox mitre, sometimes he is bareheaded.

Iconographically, Nicholas is depicted as an elderly man with a short, full white beard and balding head. In commemoration of the miracle attributed to him by tradition at the Ecumenical Council of Nicea, he is sometimes depicted with Christ over his left shoulder holding out a Gospel Book to him and the Theotokos over his right shoulder holding the omophorion. Because of his patronage of mariners, occasionally Saint Nicholas will be shown standing in a boat or rescuing a drowning sailor.

In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing the insignia of this dignity: a red bishop's cloak, a red miter and a bishop's staff (crozier). The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three golden balls. Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images will be completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (the three slaughtered children he resurrected).

In a strange twist, the three golden balls referring to the dowry affair are sometimes misinterpreted as being oranges or other fruits. As in the Low Countries oranges are generally believed to come from Spain, this led to the belief that the Saint lives in Spain and comes to visit every winter bringing oranges and other 'wintry' fruits.


Saint Nicholas the festive gift-giver

Saint Nicholas Day is a festival for children in much of 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.

The history of the festive Saint Nicholas celebration is complex and reflects conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a canonized saint, Martin Luther replaced the festival that had become associated with the Papacy with a Christkind ("Christ child") celebration on Christmas Eve. The Nicholas celebrations still remain a part of tradition among many Protestants, albeit on a much smaller scale than Christmas. The Protestant Netherlands, however, retain a much larger Saint Nicholas tradition. Many Dutch Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted Luther's Christkind.

Celebration in Italy

St. Nicholas (San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari, where he is buried. Its deeply felt celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola, held on the 7-8-9 of May. In particular on May 8 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 December 6 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 Trieste St. Nicholas (San Nicolò) is celebrated with gifts given to children on the morning of the 6th of December and with a fair called Fiera di San Nicolò 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.

Celebration in Central Europe

In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot, called Nikolaus-Stiefel, outside the front door on the night of December 5 to December 6. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good. 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 a book for their record), handing out presents on a per-behaviour basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.
But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat, or sometimes actually eat the children for misbehavior. Knecht Ruprecht furthermore was equipped with goat legs.

In Switzerland, where he is called Schmutzli, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the dark forest. In other accounts he would throw the sack into the river, drowning the naughty children. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries and regions such as Austria or Bavaria.

In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behavior and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten to beat them with a rod. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, who local tradition says are Nikolaus' helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them, even occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Mikuláš is often also accompanied by an angel (anděl) who acts as a counterweight to the ominous devil or Knecht Ruprecht (čert).

In Slovenia Saint Nikolaus (Miklavž) is accompanied by an angel and a devil (parkelj) corresponding to the Austrian Krampus.

In Luxembourg "Kleeschen" is accompanied by the "Houseker" a frightening helper wearing a brown monk's habit.

In Croatia Nikolaus (Sveti Nikola) who visits on Saint Nicholas day (Nikolinje) brings gifts to children commending them for their good behavior over the past year and exhorting them to continue in the same manner in the year to come. If they fail to do so they will receive a visit from Krampus who traditionally leaves a rod, an instrument their parents will use to discipline them.

In Hungary and Romania children typically leave their boots on the windowsill on the evening of December 5. By next morning Nikolaus (Szent Miklós traditionally but more commonly known as Mikulás) in Hungary or Moş Nicolae (Sfântul Nicolae) in Romania leaves candy and gifts if they have been good, or a rod (Hungarian: virgács, Romanian: nuieluşǎ) if they have been bad (most kids end up getting lots of candy but also a small rod). In Hungary he is often accompanied by the Krampusz, the frightening helper who is out to take away the bad ones.

Similarly in Poland, children polish their winter boots on December 5th and leave them by their beds at night, and by morning of December 6th Saint Nicholas ("Święty Mikołaj") fills the boots with small presents.

Celebration in Canada and the United States

While feasts of Saint Nicholas are not observed nationally, cities with strong German influences like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis celebrate St. Nick's Day on a scale similar to the German custom. On the previous night, children put one empty shoe (or sock) outside, and, on the following morning of December 6, the children awake to find that St. Nick has filled their previously empty footwear with candy and small presents (if the children have been "good") or coal (if not).

For these children, the relationship between St. Nick and Santa Claus is not clearly defined, although St. Nick is usually explained to be a helper of Santa. The tradition of St. Nick's Day is firmly established in the Milwaukee and St. Louis communities, with parents often continuing to observe the day with even their adult children.

Celebration in Belgium and the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve (December 5) is the primary occasion for gift-giving, when his reputed birthday is celebrated. In this case, roles are reversed, though, in that Sinterklaas is the one who gives the presents.

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.

In the days leading up to December 5 (starting when Saint Nicholas has arrived in the Netherlands by steamboat), young children put their shoes in front of the chimneys and sing special 'Sinterklaas-songs'. Often the shoe is filled with a carrot or some hay for the horse of St. Nicholas (called Amerigo). On the next morning they will find a small present in their shoe, ranging from a bag of chocolate coins to a bag of marbles or some other small toy.

On the evening of December 5th, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child that has been good in the past year (in practice to all children). This is often done by placing a sack 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, rides a white horse over the rooftops and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colorful Moorish dress, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (Black Petes).
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 feel offended by the Dutch slavery history connected to this emblem and regard the Zwarte Pieten to be racist.

Celebration in France

Saint Nicolas is celebrated in the eastern part of the country (Alsace, Lorraine regions) and less strongly in the northern part of the country (Nord département). He is accompanied by "Père Fouettard", carrying a bunch of sticks with which naughty children are beaten. The most famous story about Saint Nicolas is where he rescues three children from a butcher.

Celebration in Portugal

In Portugal, St. Nicholas (São Nicolau) has been celebrated since the Middle Ages in Guimarães as the patron saint of high-school students, in the so called Nicolinas, a group of festivities that occur from November 29th to December 7th each year.

The metamorphosis of Saint Nicholas into the commercially more lucrative Santa Claus, which took several centuries in Europe and America, has recently been re-enacted in the saint's home town, the city of Demre.

This modern Turkish town is built near the ruins of ancient Myra. As St. Nicholas is a very popular Orthodox saint, the city attracts many Russian tourists. A solemn bronze statue of the Saint by the Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, donated by the Russian government in 2000, was given a prominent place on the square in front of the medieval church of St. Nicholas.

In 2005, mayor Suleyman Topcu had the statue replaced by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus statue, because he wanted the central statue to be more recognizable to visitors from all over the world. Protests from the Russian government against this action were successful only to the extent that the Russian statue was returned, without its original high pedestal, to a corner near the church.


Restoration on Saint Nicholas' original church in Demre is currently under way. In 2007, the Turkish Ministry of Culture finally gave permission for the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated at the site, and has even contributed the sum of forty-thousand Turkish Lira to the project.