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December 6th - Feast Day of St Nicholas of Bari, Bishop of Myra

St. Nicholas (flourished 4th century, Myra, Lycia, Asia Minor [near modern Demre, Turkey]; Western feast day December 6; Eastern feast day December 19) is one of the most popular minor saints commemorated in the Eastern and Western churches and now traditionally associated with the festival of Christmas. In many countries children receive gifts on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. He is one of the patron saints of children and of sailors.

Nicholas was born at Patara, a seaside town in Licia, in southern Turkey, in the third century. He came from a good family that raised him as a Christian. His life, from his earliest days, was marked by obedience. When he was orphaned at a young age, Nicholas, remembering the rich young man in the Gospel, used his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the poor. He was elected Bishop of Myra, and under the emperor Diocletian was exiled and imprisoned. After being freed, he attended the Council of Nicea in 325. He died in Myra on 6 December 343. Many stories have been handed down about Nicholas, all testifying to a life spent in service to the weak, the small, and the defenceless.

One of the most ancient stories about Saint Nicholas involves a man with three daughters of marriageable age. The family was poor, and the young girls were in danger of being forced into prostitution, because their father could not afford to offer a suitable dowry. One night, Nicholas went to the family’s home, and threw a bag of coins through the open window -- then fled before he could be identified. With the money, the father was able to procure a marriage for his eldest daughter. Nicholas returned twice more, always at night so that he could not be identified. But the third time, the father rushed out of the house to identify his mysterious benefactor. Nicholas begged him not to tell anyone what he had done.

Another story relates the fate of three young theologians travelling to Athens. Along the way, they stopped at an inn, where they were robbed and killed by the innkeeper, who hid their bodies in a barrel. Saint Nicholas, then a bishop, stopped at the same inn when he travelled to Athens. In a dream, he saw the crime that had been committed by his host. Turning to prayer, Saint Nicholas miraculously restored the three young men to life, and obtained the conversion of the wicked innkeeper.

A third story tells how Saint Nicholas freed a young boy, Basileos, who had been kidnapped from his home in Myra, and forced to serve as a cup-bearer for a foreign potentate. While his parents prayed for his safety, Saint Nicholas appeared to Basileos, and miraculously restored him to his family -- still holding the potentate’s golden cup.

These and similar stories helped to spread devotion to Saint Nicholas as patron of children and young people.

St Nicholas is also the patron of sailors and seafarers. When he was a young man, Nicholas boarded a ship to take him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Following in the footsteps of the Lord, Nicholas prayed that he might be able to experience more fully the closeness of Jesus and share in His sufferings. Returning to Greece, a frightful storm arose, and the ship he was on was in danger of flooding. Nicholas calmly prayed, and suddenly the wind ceased, and the waves died down, to the wonder of the sailors, who feared shipwreck.

After the death of Saint Nicholas, his tomb at Myra soon became a place of pilgrimage; his relics were considered miraculous on account of a mysterious liquid that flowed from them, known as the “manna of St Nicholas.” After Licia was conquered by the Turks in the tenth century, Venetians attempted to make him their patron -- but sailors from Bari were able to acquire his relics first and brought them to their town in Puglia in 1087. Two years later they were buried in the crypt of a new Church, which the Baresi had built over the place where a Byzantine palace had once stood. The relics were placed under the altar by the reigning Pope, Urban II, as the Norman rulers of Puglia looked on. The translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas was seen in the Medieval period as an extraordinary event, and his sanctuary soon became an important goal for pilgrims, with the result that devotion to Saint Nicholas “of Bari” (rather than “of Myra”) spread throughout the world.

In the Low Countries, and throughout Germanic lands generally, the winter feast of Saint Nicholas (in Dutch, “Sint Nikolaas” and later “Sinteklaas”), and his patronage of the young, gave rise to the tradition of giving gifts on his feast day: on the Eve of his feast, children would leave socks or shoes on a chair, or next to the fireplace, and go to sleep trusting that the following morning they would be filled with gifts.

The Nicholas shrine in Bari was one of medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centres 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 honoured by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life.

After the Reformation, devotion to Nicholas disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name St. Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country’s English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The resulting image of Santa Claus in the United States crystallized in the 19th century, and he has ever since remained the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas.

Under various guises, St. Nicholas was transformed into a similar benevolent gift-giving figure in the Netherlands, Belgium, and other northern European countries. In the United Kingdom, Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas.

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.


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