On St Nicholas
Long before the illustrator Haddon Sundblom painted Santa Claus for Coca-Cola in 1931, using as his inspiration Clement Moore’s well-known poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” our man was lodged in hearts and minds in many lands. Sundblom painted Santa for thirty-five years, and his depiction became the American standard, but that jolly old red-suited elf is pure invention.
Meanwhile back in Turkey, circa 270, the old original Nicholas was born in Patara. He grew up and became a deacon, priest, and finally the bishop of Myra, where he died in 343 on 6 December, the day we continue to commemorate him. He was declared a saint in the ninth century. When he is depicted wearing a bishop’s hat and shepherd’s crook, in red or green, that’s our St. Nicholas.
Nicholas’s parents were wealthy, but they died in an epidemic when he was young. Nicholas used his inheritance to care for the poor and the needy, hence his connection with works of mercy to this day. He survived the last major persecution of Christians under Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century, and became bishop of Myra while relatively young. He attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, which produced the Nicene Creed.
Myra, now called Kale, is near a southwest Turkish port where the Andriacus River flows into the Mediterranean Sea. St. Nicholas was a great friend of sailors and once, while he was a passenger in a boat, a storm was calmed through his prayers. He became the patron saint of sailors, who carried stories of Nicholas to lands where he would also become patron saint, like Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. Prince Vladimir, who was baptized into the Christian faith in 988, oversaw the conversion of Ukraine and Russia. Vladimir’s particular fondness for St. Nicholas made Nicholas special in Slavic lands.
We don’t see them often these days, but pawnbrokers used the symbol of three balls to mark their establishments. This symbol comes from St Nicholas, who is said to have given three gold balls (or coins) to impoverished young women to put in their dowries.
St. Nicholas’s kindness to children accounts for his association with Christmas gifts. In Europe it is customary to put your shoes on the floor outside your room on the Eve of St. Nicholas Day, so that when you awaken in the morning the good Saint will have passed by and filled them with candy and oranges (recalling the three gold balls). As a result of Mr. Moore’s classic poem, these shoes would became “stockings hung by the chimney with care.”
St. Nicholas, like many larger-than-life figures, has been idealized, but his fame is warranted. He is an important witness to Christians because he balanced the contemplative life and social action. As bishop he led his flock with prayer and worship and administration; as pastor he counseled and aided people in body and soul. He was a defender of the faith in troubled times. Orthodox Christians call him Nicholas the Wonderworker because of his many acts of healing and legendary kindness. Already before the Renaissance, literally thousands of churches were named for him.
One hymn appointed for his day calls him “an example of faith and an icon of gentleness.” When he was made bishop, he is reputed to have said, “This office demands a different type of conduct, so that one may live no longer for oneself but only for others.”
“O Father Nicholas, righteous bishop, the fruits of the virtues of your c0urage have delighted the hearts of believers.” (From the thanksgiving for St Nicholas’ Day) St Nicholas, pray for us!