Re-discover St. Nicholas this Advent

05-3St Nicholas Icon Sinai 13th centurySt Nicholas Icon Sinai 13th century

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The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while 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. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar).

Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.


St. Nicholas in prison
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

St. Nicholas giving dowry gold
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—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 therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed 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 Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.

One of the oldest stories showing St. Nicholas as a protector of children takes place long after his death. The townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good saint on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer, as not knowing the language, Basilios would not understand what the king said to those around him. So, for the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios' parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy. However, she was persuaded to have a simple observance at home—with quiet prayers for Basilios' safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked up and away. St. Nicholas appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup. This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting children—which became his primary role in the West.


St. Nicholas rescuing murdered children
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

St. Nicholas' prayer calming seas
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Another story tells of three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. In France the story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, 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 is the patron and protector of children.


St. Nicholas providing food during famine
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

St. Nicholas saving innocents
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. When he was young, Nicholas sought the holy by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus' life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. And so St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers.

Other stories tell of Nicholas saving his people from famine, sparing the lives of those innocently accused, and much more. He did many kind and generous deeds in secret, expecting nothing in return. Within a century of his death he was celebrated as a saint. Today he is venerated in the East as wonder, or miracle worker and in the West as patron of a great variety of persons-children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans, laborers, travelers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, even thieves and murderers! He is known as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need (see list).


St. Nicholas blessing ships
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Saint Nicholas
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Sailors, claiming St. Nicholas as patron, carried stories of his favor and protection far and wide. St. Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports. As his popularity spread during the Middle Ages, he became the patron saint of Apulia (Italy), Sicily, Greece, and Lorraine (France), and many cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and the Netherlands (see list). Following his baptism, Grand Prince Vladimir I brought St. Nicholas' stories and devotion to St. Nicholas to his homeland where Nicholas became the most beloved saint. Nicholas was so widely revered that thousands of churches were named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England.


St. Nicholas' death
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

St. Nicholas bringing gifts
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Nicholas' tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. For both the religious and commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics. In the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari succeeded in spiriting away the bones, bringing them to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy.

An impressive church was built over St. Nicholas' crypt and many faithful journeyed to honor the saint who had rescued children, prisoners, sailors, famine victims, and many others through his compassion, generosity, and the countless miracles attributed to his intercession. The Nicholas shrine in Bari was one of medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centers and Nicholas became known as "Saint in Bari." To this day pilgrims and tourists visit Bari's great Basilica di San Nicola.

Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Catholics and Orthodox and honored by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life.


Celebrating St. Nicholas
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Celebrating St. Nicholas
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor—and sometimes for themselves! In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. Simple gift-giving in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.

Quién es Nicolás? Spanish translation of Who Is St. Nicholas?

The Origin of Santa Claus

Was St. Nicholas a Real Person?

Is St. Nicholas Still a Real Saint?

An Advent Saint

Illustrations by Elisabeth Jvanovsky from Saint Nicholas by Henri Gheon, Sheed and Ward, 1936. Used by permission of Continuum Press.

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/

 


Related:

Nicholas of Myra Film: http://www.nicholasofmyra-movie.com/nicholasofmyra_large.htm

St. Nicholas Image Gallery: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/gallery/?category_id=193



Catholic Activity on St. Nicholas Eve

Perhaps an even more effective way of encouraging virtuous behavior in children than leaving treats or switches in their shoes may be the appearance of St. Nicholas himself, who delivers his treats and chastisements in person.

05-stnicholas-bar-le-duc1DIRECTIONS

While in some places the children only put their shoes on the window sill on the eve of St. Nicholas' Day and find them filled with candies, cookies, oranges, and dried fruit the next morning (but only the good ones; the bad ones find a switch), in other parts St. Nicholas comes in person. He always did in our house. On the eve of December 5th the whole family would gather in the living room with great expectancy. By the time the much-expected knock at the door could be heard, one could almost hear the anxious heartbeat of the little ones. The holy bishop, in his pontifical vestments, accompanied by Krampus, would enter the room while everybody stood up reverently. St. Nicholas always carried a thick book in which the Guardian Angels make their entries throughout the year. That's why the saint has such an astonishing knowledge about everybody. He calls each member of the household forward, rewarding the good and admonishing the less good. The good children will get a package of sweets, whereas Krampus aims at the legs of the children who did not deserve one. After everyone has received his due, the holy bishop addresses a few words of general admonition to the whole family, acting as a precursor to the One Who is to come, drawing their thoughts toward Christmas, asking them to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Holy Child. After giving his blessing, he takes his leave, accompanied reverently by the mother, who opens the door for him. Soon afterwards the father, who, oddly enough, usually misses this august visit, will come home, and he has to hear everything about it from the youngest in the house.

Of course it did not occur to us, even in the first and second years in America, that St. Nicholas' Day should pass without the dear saint's appearing in our family circle. In the old home this beloved bishop's attire was stored away in the attic to be used every year on the evening before his feast, but now we had to work with cardboard and paper for the mitre, a bed sheet for an alb, a golden damask curtain borrowed from friends for a cope, and a broomstick artistically transformed into a bishop's staff. But at the right moment St. Nicholas opened the door. That taught us that it really does not require money, but only imagination and good will, to revive or introduce these lovely old customs.

Activity Source: >Around the Year with the Trapp Family by Maria Augusta Trapp, Pantheon Books Inc., New York, New York, 1955

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