My godmother recently gave me a book called The True Saint Nicholas written by William J. Bennett
Inspired by the book, and using information from it, I dedicate this post to Saint Nicholas of Myra.
Few facts are known about St. Nicholas, and most of the information comes from traditions and legends.
Nicholas was born around the year 280 in Patara, a town on the Mediterranean coast in present-day Turkey.
His parents, Theophanes and Nonna, were a wealthy couple.
They were married for many years, but they were not able to have children.
This was a cross for the couple, but they refused to give up hope. They cried out to God and begged Him to bless them with a child.
After many tears and prayers, Theophanes and Nonna received a miracle!
Their first, and only, child was born and baptized with the name Nicholas.
He was named after his uncle who was an abbot at a nearby monastery. This Greek name meaning “people’s victor” would prove to be fitting for their son.
Even though the family lived in the Roman Empire, which was dominated by paganism, they were Christians and practiced their faith with deep devotion.
A plague occurred in Lycia, the province where Patara was located, and took the lives of his parents. After this difficult loss, he was sent to live with his uncle in the monastery.
Some time later, Nicholas decided to study for the priesthood — a decision that would lead many to Christ.
Many stories about St. Nicholas have been passed on through the centuries.
I’d like to share three stories from the book, each with its own valuable lesson.
These three lessons reveal St. Nicholas’ character and how every Christian is called to live.
Lesson One: Charity
When Nicholas began to study for the priesthood, he wanted to give away his possessions — including the inheritance from his parents.
A wealthy family in Patara suffered misfortune and became very poor. The man searched for work, but no one hired him because they didn’t believe he was capable of hard labor.
The man had three daughters of marriageable age. Since a woman needed a dowry to attract a marriage offer and the father had no money, the daughters weren’t able to get married.
The situation grew desperate, and the father felt that the only way to ensure his children’s survival was to sell them into servitude.
When Nicholas heard about the family, he was determined to help.
He set out at night to the family’s home. While they were sleeping, he secretly walked up to the window and dropped a bag of gold coins inside.
Some say it landed in a shoe; others say it landed in a stocking.
When the family woke the next morning, they were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. They had enough money to live on and for the oldest daughter’s dowry!
Nicholas saw how much joy his secret gift caused and was determined to help the family again.
He delivered two more bags of gold so all of the daughters could get married.
After the third visit, the man ran outside and caught Nicholas.
He was extremely thankful for his acts of charity. Nicholas told the man to thank God, not him, and to keep his identity a secret.
This beloved story about St. Nicholas sparked his reputation as the world’s most famous gift-giver.
It’s just one of many stories that illustrates his generosity and concern for those in need.
Prayer: O Lord, grant us a spirit of charity so we may love our neighbor as ourselves, just like St. Nicholas.
Lesson Two: Faith
Around the year 300, Nicholas followed his uncle’s example and went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Even though Jerusalem was occupied by the Roman Empire, Christian communities were still present there. They welcomed pilgrims like Nicholas and showed them the holy sites.
When it was time to return home, Nicholas made a deal with the captain of a merchant vessel to bring him to Patara.
During the journey, a terrible storm appeared. Nicholas tried to keep the sailors calm by praying to God for protection and safety.
The storm eventually ended, but part of the ship was destroyed and the supplies were gone.
The sailors felt hopeless and expected to die at sea, but Nicholas refused to give up.
After drifting for some time, they finally spotted land!
The ship reached the shore; they had miraculously arrived at Patara.
When Nicholas found himself in a desperate situation, he turned to the Lord and knew he would be taken care of.
This is just one of the many stories that illustrates St. Nicholas’ unwavering trust in God.
Prayer: O Lord, increase our faith so we may rely on You in every situation, just like St. Nicholas.
Lesson Three: Courage
Nicholas was chosen to be bishop of Myra, an important city several miles east of Patara.
During this time, the Roman Empire was under tremendous strain. This caused government leaders to find a scapegoat — Christians.
People soon became suspicious of Christians and blamed them for the hardships.
This led to what’s known as the Great Persecution.
In 303, the Roman emperor Diocletian ordered the destruction of churches, an end to Christian worship, the burning of scriptures, a ban on Christians from holding public office, and the arrest of Christian leaders.
He also created a law that required Christians to sacrifice to pagan gods.
Years of terror followed.
Christians were imprisoned, tortured and killed. It’s estimated that 3,000 to 3,500 Christians were martyred in a span of approximately 30 years.
Nicholas heard the reports and knew it was only a matter of time before he faced persecution.
When soldiers arrived in Myra and commanded the bishop to sacrifice to pagan gods, he refused.
Nicholas was arrested and placed in a dark, suffocating prison cell. Then, he was threatened, starved, beaten, and brutally tortured.
No matter what persecution Nicholas faced, he never denied Christ!
Instead, he continued his pastoral ministry. He comforted, encouraged and nursed the prisoners. He also led them in prayer and worship.
After the death of Diocletian and his successor, Constantine won control of the empire. In 313, Constantine ordered the Edict of Milan which gave freedom of worship to all religions, including Christianity.
Nicholas was finally released from prison. He immediately returned to Myra to care for his wounded community.
As Christians continue to be persecuted throughout the world, St. Nicholas is a model of fortitude and perseverance.
Prayer: O Lord, grant us courage so we may defend Christianity no matter what the cost, just like St. Nicholas.
Nicholas of Myra was beloved during his life and continues to be honored centuries after his death.
He was recognized as a “Saint” long before the Roman Catholic Church began a formal canonization process.
He became the patron of many, including: sailors, merchants, children, the falsely accused, the city of Bari, and Russia.
December 6th became known as Saint Nicholas Day and is still recognized as his feast.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans began exchanging gifts to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day — a custom inspired by his many acts of charity.
On December 5th, the eve of his feast, children went to sleep anticipating his visit to their town.
If a child behaved well, they received gifts such as fruit, nuts, candy, and coins. If a child behaved poorly, they received a small stick among the treats which was meant to rebuke their behavior.
People also celebrated by gathering in churches to sing and pray, visiting neighbors, eating special foods, and performing plays.
In Western Europe, Nicholas’ legacy slowly blended into various folk traditions. He was later seen as a cultural figure, rather than a religious one.
In Eastern Europe, Asia Minor and the Russian Empire, Orthodox traditions persevered and St. Nicholas continued to be honored as a great saint.
He’s still one of the most widely venerated saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Today, on the eve of his feast, let us remember St. Nicholas of Myra and his example of holiness.
(And let us thank my godmother for inspiring this post.)
Saint Nicholas, pray for us!