The Feast Day of St. Nicholas
December 6th is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas (in Western Christianity, at least. It’s not until December 19th in Eastern Christianity), so what better time to have a look at the origins of the man?
“Very little is known about the historical Saint Nicholas. The earliest accounts of his life were written centuries after his death and contain many legendary elaborations.”
Huh. Okay. Well, it’s also a good day to take a look at some legendary elaborations.
Born:- Traditionally, 15th March 270. Patara, Roman Empire (now in modern Turkey)
Died:- Traditionally 6th December 343. Myra, Byzantine Empire (Myra is now known as Demre, Turkey)
Patron Saint of (gosh, there’s a lot of these):- Children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, burglars, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, Aberdeen and Liverpool. Other things too, but let’s just take those for the time being.
That list covers three of his miracles, so let’s group them accordingly:-
1 - Fishermen, sailors, merchants (and I suppose Liverpool and Aberdeen, whose prosperity has long been tied to those trades) hope for St Nicholas protection upon the sea, due to his miracle of calming a storm that threatened to destroy his ship while en route to the Holy Land. Nicholas is said to have rebuked the waves, causing the storm to subside. It seems even the sea and the weather pay attention when Nicholas wants them to behave.
2 - Next we have pawnbrokers, unmarried people and burglars. These all arise from the most famous of Saint Nicholas’s stories in which he anonymously dropped three gifts of bags of gold down the chimney for three local girls whose father could afford no dowry so that they might be married. I guess burglars like his ability to get into and out of a house without being seen, while pawnbrokers see a similarity with the three gold balls that represent their profession.
3 - That leaves children, coopers and brewers. Hold tight, because this isn’t even remotely as Christmassy as you might expect. In a time of famine (so the medieval addition to the legend goes), a local butcher killed and butchered three children, then sealed them into a barrel to cure and sell as ham. Nicholas, passing by on his way to feed the hungry, heard the cries of the dead children, saw through the butchers lies and brought the children (who we can assume were on the Nice list) back to life by making the sign of the cross. Depictions of this story with its barrel led to Nicholas also being revered by coopers and brewers.
So there you have it! Saint Nicholas didn’t let bad weather stop him from getting where he was going, was famously generous, and was an early champion of food standards.
On his other Feast Day in two weeks time, I’ll write more about Nicholas of Myra, the two-fisted bishop.