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Saint Nick: bishop, wonderworker and Santa’s predecessor

Saint Nicholas - Bishop - Saint - Wonderworker

Saint Nick: the story behind the historical figure …

The saint we know as “Saint Nicholaos” was born in  270 AD in Patara, a flourishing maritime and commercial city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.

For your trivia information, Patara was allegedly ‘founded’ by Pararus, a son of the Greek mythological god, Apollo and is mentioned in the New Testament as the place where Paul of Tarsas and the apostle Luke changed ships.

St Nick (hope that’s ok to call him that!?) lived most of his 73 years in the nearby town of Myra, which is modern day Antalya and was locally known as Nikolaos of Myra.He was also known by a far more intriguing name: Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Nikolaos ho Thaumaturgos if you prefer Greek)

This not-quite five foot priest who lived more than a millennium and a half ago comes with his stories but what we really do know is there really was a Nicholaos of Myra –  a bishop and later canonized as a saint – who was patron to the poor and needy.

His claims to fame were: 

1) He was a bishop.

2) He is universally considered the archetype for the character we know as Santa Claus.

Even without the Santa gig, St Nick is still famous – with the Eastern Orthodox church still celebrating his memory with hymns every Thursday. (O hide your jealously, Santa)

His fame is widespread: as well as Orthodox Christians, he’s also loved by Catholics and honoured by Anglicans and Lutherans too.

In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as “Lord of the Sea” – often described as Greek scholars as a Christianised version of Posiden. Yet, his appeal reaches further than idealised mythology: among Greeks and Italians, he is a favourite of sailors, fishermen and sailing, ships and sailing.

This fourth century saint had a patronage of children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, prostitutes, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers,

Do you swear like a sailor? Are you actually a sailor? A prostitute? A marginalised young child? Experiencing financial difficulties?  St Nick is your guy!

Does he and his alter ego Santa have much in common other than a long grey beard?

Whilst the commercial Santa is always seen in his holiday gear: nothing short of an XXL red playsuit, the real St Nick dressed more formally, with his bishop’s role requiring he don flowing robes and very likely a big hat.

How it all started: humble generosity

His story. He was born to rich Christian parents and – like Joan of Arc – was seen to be very pious from a young age: fastidiously observing all the special religious feasts and such things.

Yet, when he was still just a boy St Nick lost his parents to an epidemic and was raised by his uncle, the bishop of Myra. (Interestingly, his uncle was also named Nicholaus.) This uncle nurtured his nephew’s love of the church and groomed him to become a priest. Later on, like his namesake uncle, he become the bishop of Myra whilst still a ‘youngen’. But there was always something different about this Greek bishop …

What St Nick was about …

Whilst the commercial Santa Claus enjoys an idyllic existence in the “North Pole”, complete with – any Tim Allen movie testifies – the mod cons and well-executed teams of slave elves deciphering children’s handwriting and making toy horses, the real Nick suffered persecution for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Yet, he was motivated by the Christian teaching on selling what you own and distributing the money to the poor, using his inheritance to assist the needy, sick, and the suffering in society.

As well as his good deeds and heart for the poor, Nick also had a reputation for being a “wonderworker” – a regular miracle man.

A horrible butcher! And other dramatic tales about St Nick …

Some of the tales about St Nick read like Grimm Brothers ones, like this one…

It begins telling how a terrible famine struck an island and a malicious butcher lured three children to his house, only to murder his unfortunate victims. I won’t tell you the rest of the story because it made me sick but picture these two words together, in a negative way: children and a pie.

St Nick, who happened to be visiting the region to care for its hungry, witnessed this horror and allegedly resurrected the children by his prayers.

The story behind his most famous story…

Yet, a less dramatic and certainly more well known story of St Nick is much pleasanter…

It involves his secret provision of dowries for a poor man. This was the story of an poor man with three daughters who couldn’t afford proper dowries for them, with meant that – in that culture – they would probably have to work in prostituion for employment.

Yet our kindhearted hero was eager to help this man – and his daughters. Being too humble to reveal his intentions or simply quite thoughtful in wanting his beneficiary’s pride to be saved from having to accept a charitable act. So sneakily, instead – our bishop went to the man’s house at night and threw three coin purses through an open window, suspiciously enough for three dowries

This story extends further, and paints Nicholaos throwing one purse through the window, each night before the man’s daighter’s coming of age. To such mysterious gestures, the father wises up after the second gift and decides to lie in wait to see who throws the purse for his third daughter.

Allegedly, In one version of this famous story the father does discover St Nick in the act of leaving the money, to which the latter replies that it’s not him but God he should be thanking.

As Nick’s cover begins to disintegrate, he has to work much harder in keeping his giving secret. Happily, he discovers that he can simply throw coins down a chimney which slides right into freshly washed stockings hanging by the fireside.

And for your trivia knowledge and burning curiosity about the real historical figure of St Nick, that’s where the whole “hang your stockings out for St Nick” who has amalgamated into that ubiquitous guy who won’t take off his red jumpsuit, comes from…

My research was assisted by:

www.stnicholascentre.com, Wikipedia

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