ST. NICHOLAS: THE MAN BEHIND SANTA CLAUS

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ST. NICHOLAS: THE MAN BEHIND SANTA CLAUS

Santa Claus's origin traces back to Nicholas, born in the third century in Patara, Asia Minor (now part of southern Turkey). His affluent Christian parents passed away when he was young, leaving him with a significant inheritance. Following Jesus' teachings to help the less fortunate, Nicholas used his wealth to aid the poor, sick, and suffering. Committed to serving God, he became the Bishop of Myra at a young age. Nicholas gained renown for his generosity, compassion for children, and care for sailors and ships.

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a harsh persecutor of Christians, Bishop Nicholas faced persecution for his faith, enduring exile and imprisonment. The prisons were filled with bishops, priests, and deacons, leaving no space for actual criminals like murderers and thieves. Upon his release, Nicholas participated in the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He eventually passed away on December 6, AD 343, in Myra, and was laid to rest in his cathedral church. A unique relic, known as manna, formed in his grave—a liquid substance believed to possess healing properties, contributing to the growth of devotion to Nicholas. His death anniversary, December 6th (or December 19th on the Julian Calendar), became a day of celebration known as St. Nicholas Day.

Over the centuries, numerous stories and legends have emerged recounting the life and deeds of St. Nicholas. These tales provide insights into his extraordinary character, illustrating why he is cherished and revered as a protector and helper of those in need.

In a particular story, a poor man with three daughters faced the challenge of providing dowries for them. In those times, a father needed to offer a valuable dowry to enhance his daughters' chances of finding good husbands. Without a dowry, marriage prospects were bleak, often leading to the daughters being sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three separate occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home, serving as the much-needed dowries.These bags of gold seemingly materialized by being tossed through an open window and landing in stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry. This gave rise to the tradition of children hanging stockings or placing shoes, eagerly anticipating gifts from Saint Nicholas. In some versions of the story, the gifts are represented as gold balls or oranges, leading to the symbolism of three gold balls as a representation of St. Nicholas. Thus, the tale underscores St. Nicholas's role as a benevolent gift-giver.

One of the earliest stories depicting St. Nicholas as a guardian of children unfolds long after his passing. During the celebration of the saint's feast day in Myra, a group of Arab pirates from Crete pillaged the Church of Saint Nicholas, stealing valuable treasures. In their plunder, they also abducted a young boy named Basilios to be enslaved. The emir, or ruler, chose Basilios as his personal cupbearer since the boy did not understand the language and, therefore, wouldn't comprehend the king's conversations.For a year, Basilios served the emir, presenting wine in a splendid golden cup. Meanwhile, his grieving parents endured a slow and sorrowful passage of time. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, Basilios' mother, devastated by the loss of her only child, hesitated to partake in the festivities, now associated with tragedy. However, she agreed to a simple observance at home, offering quiet prayers for Basilios' well-being.In a remarkable turn of events, as Basilios continued his duties serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked away. St. Nicholas appeared to the frightened boy, imparted his blessings, and returned him to his home in Myra. The joy and astonishment were palpable as Basilios miraculously reappeared before his parents, still clutching the king's golden cup. This tale marks the first instance of St. Nicholas being celebrated as a protector of children, solidifying this role in Western traditions.

In another story, three theological students were journeying to Athens when they fell victim to a wicked innkeeper. This unscrupulous host not only robbed them but also murdered the students, concealing their remains in a large pickling tub. Coincidentally, Bishop Nicholas happened to stay at the same inn during his travels. During the night, he had a vision of the heinous crime, prompting him to rise and confront the innkeeper. Nicholas fervently prayed to God, and miraculously, the three young men were restored to life and wholeness.In a similar story from France, three young children playing outdoors became lost, eventually falling prey to an evil butcher who lured and captured them. St. Nicholas intervened, appealing to God for their revival and safe return to their families. These narratives further solidify St. Nicholas's role as the patron and protector of children.

Numerous stories recount St. Nicholas's connection with the sea. In his youth, Nicholas embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, walking in the footsteps of Jesus to immerse himself more profoundly in the life, passion, and resurrection of Christ. During his return journey by sea, a formidable storm jeopardized the ship. In the face of the tempest, Nicholas remained composed and turned to prayer. To the astonishment of the terrified sailors, the wind and waves promptly subsided, saving them all from the perilous situation. Thus, St. Nicholas is revered as the patron of sailors and voyagers.

Beyond the well-known stories, there are additional tales of St. Nicholas performing acts of kindness, such as rescuing his people from famine and intervening to save the lives of those falsely accused. His benevolent deeds extended to various spheres, and he often acted selflessly, expecting nothing in return. Within a century of his death, St. Nicholas had already become widely celebrated as a saint.

Today, St. Nicholas is honored in the East as a wonderworker or miracle worker, while in the West, he is recognized as the patron of a diverse array of individuals and professions. This includes children, mariners, bankers, pawnbrokers, scholars, orphans, laborers, travelers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and even those who have committed crimes like thieves and murderers. St. Nicholas is revered as the friend and protector of all those facing trouble or in need.

Sailors, who considered St. Nicholas their patron, shared stories of his favor and protection, spreading his fame far and wide. St. Nicholas chapels began to be constructed in numerous seaports. As his popularity surged during the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was acknowledged as the patron saint of Apulia (Italy), Sicily, Greece, and Lorraine (France), as well as many cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and the Netherlands (refer to the list). Following his baptism, Grand Prince Vladimir I brought the stories and devotion to St. Nicholas back to his homeland, where Nicholas became the most cherished saint. The reverence for Nicholas was so widespread that thousands of churches were dedicated to him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands, and over four hundred in England.

Nicholas's tomb in Myra evolved into a highly sought-after pilgrimage site. Due to concerns arising from frequent wars and attacks in the region, some Christians feared that accessing the tomb might become challenging. Recognizing the religious and commercial benefits of possessing a significant pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari competed to acquire the relics of St. Nicholas.

In the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari successfully transported the saint's bones to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy. Over St. Nicholas's crypt, an impressive church was constructed, and many faithful pilgrims embarked on journeys to honor the saint who had demonstrated compassion, generosity, and numerous miracles benefiting children, prisoners, sailors, famine victims, and others. The Nicholas shrine in Bari emerged as one of medieval Europe's prominent pilgrimage centers, earning Nicholas the title of "Saint in Bari." Even today, pilgrims and tourists visit Bari's grand Basilica di San Nicola to pay homage to St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas continues to be widely celebrated in Europe, maintaining reverence among Catholics, Orthodox believers, and respect from Protestants. His legacy as a symbol of generosity, particularly towards those in need, especially children, endures as a model for leading a compassionate life.

The observance of St. Nicholas' feast day on December 6th serves as a means of keeping alive the tales of his kindness and benevolence. In Germany and Poland, boys, dressed as bishops, traditionally begged for alms for the poor (and sometimes for themselves). In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas is said to arrive on a steamship from Spain, riding a white horse during his gift-giving rounds. December 6th remains a primary day for gift-giving and festive celebrations in much of Europe.

For instance, in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the feast day, by sharing candies (thrown in the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children follow the tradition of leaving carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping that St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. This practice of simple gift-giving during early Advent serves to maintain a focus on the Christ Child, preserving the essence of Christmas Day.