St. Nicholas of Myra was born in about 280 AD in the town of Patara within the Province of Lycia, Asia Minor. While little that is strictly historical has survived, his life has been embroidered with many legends which in various ways reveal him as an ideal and fearless pastor.
According to tradition, his parents, finding themselves unable to conceive, begged God for a child. Nicholas — the word means conqueror — was the answer to their prayers.
His generosity to the poor is a major thread in stories concerning his life. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and ransoming prisoners, Nicholas was both a spiritual and material benefactor for many people, young and old.
One account of Nicholas’ life relates that, when he was still a young man, a prominent merchant of Patara, the father of three daughters, fell into extreme poverty. With no money for a dowry, his daughters could not find husbands and might have become slaves or prostitutes. On three different occasions, Nicholas threw a small bag of gold coins in an open window of the merchant’s home, thus sparing him the humiliation of accepting charity and assuring that his daughters would have the dowries they needed. (The bags of gold 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 in hopes of a gift from Nicholas.)
One story tells of Nicholas rescuing a boy who had been kidnapped by pirates, another of rescuing children from a murderous innkeeper. Such accounts explain why St. Nicholas has long been regarded as a protector of children.
On his parents’ deaths, Nicholas distributed his inheritance to the poor. “His hand was outstretched to the needy,” an ancient biography records, “on whom it poured alms richly, as a water-filled river abounds in streams.”
Traveling to Palestine to venerate the holy places, Nicholas lived for a time in a cave west of Bethlehem where the Church of St. Nicholas stands today — in the town Beit Jala, as it is now called. He left the Holy Land after learning in a dream that God wanted him to return to Lycia. On his arrival, Nicholas went to a local monastery where he hoped to lead a quiet monastic life. However, a heavenly voice told him, “Nicholas, if you desire a crown from Me, go and struggle for the good of the world. Turn back to the world and let My name be glorified in you.” He settled in Myra, a port city that was the capital of Lycia, where he lived as a homeless pauper, waiting upon the will of God. Following the death of the local archbishop, the senior clergy were inspired to ask Nicholas to accept the responsibility of becoming the new bishop of Myra.
During his years of service as archbishop, the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian raised a fierce persecution against Christians. Among those imprisoned was Myra’s archbishop.
Nicholas is said to have taken part in the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325 AD where he stood among the opponents of the Arian heresy. In the midst of heated debate with Arius, Nicholas is said to have slapped Arius across the face. As punishment for his act of violence, the bishops of the Council voted to deprive Nicholas of his rank. That night, however, several of the Council members had a dream of Nicholas flanked by Christ and Mary; the Theotokos was holding an omophorion, emblem of the episcopal rank. Understanding this as a sign that Nicholas’ boldness was pleasing to God, Nicholas was reinstated as archbishop.
Another story relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra arrived with the news that the ruler of the city, Eustathius, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the outskirts of the city, he asked those he met on the road if they knew what had happened to the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field, where he found a large crowd of people and the three men kneeling with their arms bound behind them, awaiting the blow of the sword. Nicholas passed through the crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed from their bonds. Later the ruler sought the saint’s forgiveness. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.
Nicholas worked many other great deeds and miracles in his own lifetime. Since his repose in Myra in 341 AD, the instances of his intercession are countless. He is the patron saint of travelers, sailors, fishermen, the young, the orphaned, unwed girls, exiles and prisoners.
No other saint has been so often represented in icons except the Theotokos. Thousands of churches bear his name.
“Having fulfilled the Gospel of Christ, you have appeared in truth as a most holy shepherd to the world,” the Church sings on his feast day, December 6.
His relics are in Bari, Italy.
There is a web site devoted to St. Nicholas and the many traditions associated with him: www.stnicholascenter.org.
From the Fall 2003 issue of In Communion, quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.