Saint Nicholas was born during the third century in the Turkish village of Patara to wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian. They died whilst Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made bishop of Myra while still a young man, becoming known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas was persecuted, resulting in his exile and imprisonment. The story goes that the prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals! Nicholas was eventually released and died on 6th December 325 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique substance called manna allegedly formed in his grave. This was a liquid substance said to have healing powers, and the anniversary of his death became a day of celebration.
Many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds which help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.
One such story tells of a poor man with three daughters in the days when a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home – providing the dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from St Nicholas.
In France the story is told of three small children, wandering as they played until they got lost. They were lured and captured by an evil butcher. St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families. And so St. Nicholas became the patron saint and protector of children.
Today he is regarded as patron of a great variety of people: children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans, labourers, travellers, merchants, judges, paupers, students, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, even thieves and murderers! He is known as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need.
Chapels to St. Nicholas were built in many seaports. He became a beloved saint and thousands of churches were named after him, including 300 in Belgium, 34 in Rome, 23 in the Netherlands and more than 400 in England.
St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life because of his example of generosity to those in need, especially children. His feast day, 6th December, is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe