Friday, December 02, 2022

The People’s Champion

St Nicholas, by Jaroslav Čermák (1831-78)

It is perhaps ironic that the second most popular patron saint in the world is considered historically dubious. Saint Nicholas of Myra (270-343), whose feast we celebrate on December 6, has more patronages than any other holy figure besides the Blessed Virgin Mary, yet his biography was considered so unreliable that his feast was demoted from third class in the 1962 calendar to an optional memorial in 1969. “Though one of the most popular saints in both the Greek and Latin Churches,” concludes The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “scarcely anything is historically certain about him.” [1]

We can certainly understand the skepticism. Long before he was morphed into Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas was the object of misappropriation and colorful imagination. Legends about the saint were already growing in the first millennium when the legends of another saint were grafted onto his. In the tenth century, the aptly named Symeon “Metaphrastes” (the “compiler” or “paraphraser”) combined the stories of our Nicholas with a Saint Nicholas of Sion, a monk who died in 564, almost two centuries after the bishop of Myra. And in the second millennium, medieval Christians in the East and especially the West took Nicholas’ story in directions that would have Symeon rubbing his eyes in disbelief.
But certainty can be surprisingly mercurial. In the mid-twentieth century, proponents of Mass facing the people were certain that this was the practice of the early Church, only to find out decades later (thanks to scholars like Fr. Uwe Michael Lang [2]) that they were dead wrong. And although skepticism about St. Nicholas has long been the sophisticated position among the well-educated, more recent scholarship is changing the conversation about the holy bishop whom the Eastern Churches continue to revere as Nicholas the Wonderworker. In following this scholarship, we can unearth a fairly reliable profile of this great saint.
Defender of Family Values
Nicholas was born in Patara, a coastal town in the Lycia region of southwest Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). When he was eighteen, his wealthy parents died, and after the pious Nicholas asked God what to do with the fortune, he learned of a heartbreaking case. A nobleman who lived not far from him had, through the machinations of Satan, fallen into destitution. The devil’s goal was to induce the man into abandoning God and sinning, and it worked: the man decided that since he could not marry off his three daughters without a dowry, he would sell them into prostitution.
This shocking option was not uncommon in antiquity. The Emperor Constantine made public funds available in limited areas to assist impoverished families so that they would not contemplate selling children into slavery or prostitution, and the Church enacted canons punishing fathers with excommunication who abused their parental rights in this manner.
But the sad practice continued. In a sermon, a traumatized Saint Basil the Great describes witnessing a father in the marketplace selling his children to pay off his debt, and St. Ambrose describes the pain of a father who must choose between handing his children over to the slave trader or starving to death. [3]
Enter Saint Nicholas. The holy layman threw three bags (actually, it was wrapped-up cloth) of gold coins through the window of the man’s house to ensure a respectable marriage for his daughters. Some variations of the story condense Nicholas’ actions into three consecutive nights, but according to our earliest account Nicholas waited to see what the man would do with the first bag, for Nicholas was a wise and prudent donor who was concerned about the spiritual and temporal effects of his charity. Happily, the man immediately procured a marriage for his eldest daughter, and he did the same thing for his second daughter after Nicholas anonymously gave him another bag.
Scene from the Legend of St Nicholas, Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-35
Nicolas’ generosity not only saved the family from the sin of impurity, it restored their faith in God as well. After his first two daughters were married, the father prayed to God to know the identity of the man who was so kind to them, and God answered his prayer: the man was able to catch Nicholas in the act on the third night and thank him personally. Falling to his knees, the man would have kissed Nicholas’ feet had the saint not prevented him. Nicholas helped him off the ground and made him swear never to tell a soul what had happened.
Finally, Nicholas’ generosity is an implicit affirmation of what today are called family values. Even though Nicholas himself would choose celibacy, his kindness underscores the goodness of marriage and family, both of which are worth fighting (or sacrificing) for. Understandably, Nicholas became the patron saint of the poor, prostitutes, brides, and newlyweds. And because he used money to save the family, he is a patron saint of bankers, merchants, and pawnbrokers. The latter liked Nicholas so much that they made three bags of coins or three circles the symbol of their business, a custom that still survives today.
The Bishop of Myra
Nicholas eventually became a cleric of some sort (probably a priest but we are not sure). When the bishop of Myra died, Nicholas journeyed the twenty miles from his hometown of Patara to pay his respects. Unbeknownst to him, neighboring bishops had gathered in the church at Myra to elect and consecrate a new bishop. Candidates for the position were not exactly plentiful: the Church was still being persecuted by the Roman Empire, and bishops could expect imprisonment, torture, or execution.
Somewhat exasperated, the bishops agreed to elect the first man who walked into the church that day. When Nicholas crossed the threshold, a bishop asked him, “Son, what is your name?” “Sir,” he replied, “I am the sinner Nicholas, a servant of Your Excellency.” Nicholas’ humility astonished all who heard him, and the bishop said, “Son, come with me.” They consecrated him a bishop then and there.
It was rare for someone to be made a bishop so young (Nicholas was between thirty and thirty-five), but having a sudden ordination was not unheard of. St. Ambrose went from being a catechumen to a bishop in a breathtaking nine days, and St. Augustine was forcibly made a priest when others noticed that he was in the congregation and implored the bishop to ordain him immediately.
Nicholas barely had time to settle into his new job before he was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. It was common at the time to blind the right eyes and the cut the sinews of the left ankles of steadfast Christians [4], but we do not know if Nicholas suffered such a plight. One biographer only relates that at the Council of Nicaea, many bishops had scars on their bodies from the time of persecution, especially Nicholas and one other bishop.
In 1953, a forensic investigation of what is believed to be the skull of Saint Nicholas in the cathedral of Bari, Italy, revealed that the nose was severely broken. The breakage may have happened post-mortem when sloppy merchants from Bari looted—er, transferred—the relics of St. Nicholas to their native city in 1087. But if it did not, the condition of the nose could be confirmation of Nicholas’ rough treatment in prison, or it could lend support to a story about a pugilistic Nicholas striking Arius (see below).
Deck the Heretic?
It is likely that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea as one of three hundred bishops in A.D. 325. [5] There is a medieval legend that when Arius the Alexandrian priest took the floor and went on and on about how Jesus Christ was not the consubstantial Son of God, Nicholas, unable to bear Arius’ heretical prattling any longer, walked up to him and slapped him. (As one meme puts it, “Deck the halls? How about deck the heretic?”). The story goes on to assert that Nicholas was imprisoned for striking a bishop, but that night Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary visited him in jail, congratulated him for defending the truth, and liberated him.
St Nicholas Slaps Arius; fresco in the Panagia Soumela monastery in Asia Minor.
Nicholas’ earliest biographer, however, paints a different picture, one that is more consistent with the saint’s famous kindness. According to Michael the Archimandrite, Nicholas exuded such an odor of sanctity that his mere appearance made others better. And he was so concerned about the welfare of others that he pressured heretics to be better too. Theognis was the bishop of Nicaea who was a major player at the Council; he was also the kind of man who “irritated everyone with his stubbornness.” [6] Theognis had reluctantly signed on to the orthodox position as formulated by the Council, but when the Emperor announced that Arius would be excommunicated and exiled, Theognis angrily protested against what in his opinion was an excessive punishment. No paragon of patience himself, the Emperor quickly procured Theognis’ excommunication. The standoff was resolved by Saint Nicholas, who gently urged him to do the right thing through a series of letters. It worked, and Theognis submitted himself to the judgment of the Council when it convened again in 327.
Regional Exorcist
Nicholas’ early biographers describe him as expelling many demons from the region by destroying pagan shrines and groves, including the town’s great temple dedicated to Artemis (Diana). The early Church took seriously Psalm 95:5 (96:5)—“All the gods of the gentiles are devils”—and treated the Greco-Roman deities as demons in disguise. A biography of St. Martin of Tours, who lived a generation after Nicholas on the western side of the Empire, relates that when demons who were possessing someone revealed their name, it was the name of a pagan god like Jove or Mercury. [7] In Nicholas’ time, Christianity was on its way from being a religion with two million adherents when he was born to a religion of thirty four million when he passed away, but the old religion was still alive and well and the old habits died hard. Christians were often the victims of mob violence, but sometimes they fought back, applying to their own situation Matthew 3:10—“the axe is laid to the root of the tree.” An early coin from Myra depicts the goddess Artemis crouched in the branches of a tree with two men standing below with raised axes. [8]
Saint Nicholas of Bari Felling a Tree Inhabited by Demons, by Paolo de Matteis, 1727

Nicholas’ protection of his flock from the demonic only grew after his death. According to a legend first recorded in the early eighth century, a demon bent on retribution for Nicholas’ victories disguised itself as a little old lady and persuaded pilgrims sailing to Myra to bring with them a small flask of oil for the lamps of the saint’s tomb. The flask, however, was a bomb with properties similar to the Byzantine secret weapon “Greek fire.” That night one of the pilgrims was warned in a dream to throw it into the sea, and when he did it exploded and caused a series of waves that threatened to capsize the ship. Suddenly, the spirit of Nicholas himself appeared and calmed the waters. To this day Saint Nicholas is a patron of travelers, pilgrims, and all those tied to the sea, including but not limited to sailors, fishermen, longshoremen, maritime pilots, and the Greek Navy. There was a time when churches dedicated to the saint would be built on shore so that they could be seen off the coast as landmarks.[9]
The Go-To
It is tempting to think of patron saints as “replacements” of the Roman gods, where specific saints replace specific gods for specific causes in a sort of watered-down monotheism for recovering polytheists. This theory has the right location but the wrong causation. It was not the Roman pantheon but the Roman patron-client relationship that served as the inspiration for saintly patronage. In this important relationship, the client owed the patron honor and gifts while the patron owed the client certain favors, such as helping him find a job. A “patron” was a boss or big shot who had your back; he was the go-to guy when you got in trouble. Think of it as a legal and moral version of The Godfather movies, with all the big fat Italian weddings and without all the sleeping with the fishes.
Patronages on earth were especially important in the third and fourth centuries, when the imperial regime became increasingly besotted by Big Government expenses and corrupt officials. In response, common folk turned more and more to bishops to protect them, for bishops had legal and moral leverage against local government officials and were far more trustworthy.
Even before his death, Nicholas was looked to as a patron. When the government imposed a burdensome new tax, Nicholas personally appealed to the Emperor Constantine in Constantinople to have it greatly reduced. And because Nicholas was nobody’s fool, he miraculously sent the signed decree back to Myra before the Emperor could regret his decision (which he soon did).
Saint Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilja Repin, 1888
Earlier in his life, when three young men were about to be executed by the corrupt local governor, Nicholas stopped the execution and confronted the official, who subsequently confessed that he had been bribed. This amazing intervention left a deep impression on three military officers who witnessed it named Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis, and when they later returned to Constantinople and found themselves falsely accused of high treason, it was Nicholas to whom they turned. Imprisoned and awaiting execution the next morning, they cried out to the God of Nicholas for help. That night, Nicholas appeared to Constantine in a dream, chided him for his rashness, and demanded the release of the officers. After Nicholas threatened to serve Constantine’s remains to vultures if he did not comply (!), the Emperor asked him who he was. “I am Bishop Nicholas, a sinner,” he replied. Constantine awoke and summoned his consul, who had had the same dream. Now truly frightened, the Emperor summoned the three men and asked them if they had heard of someone named Nicholas. The officers rejoiced at the mention of his name, and the Emperor, sensing the hand of God, released them immediately.
The story of Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis is one of the earliest that we have of the saint, but over time it turned into quite a different tale. In a later iteration, the three men were clerics rather than soldiers who were murdered by an innkeeper for their money and resurrected by Nicholas. From there the tale grew outrageously: the clerics were now boys, and the wicked innkeeper murdered them, dismembered them, and pickled their remains in a barrel or brine tub. According to this version, Nicholas reassembled and resurrected the boys after forcing the innkeeper to repent. Because of this gruesome tale, Nicholas posthumously took on additional jobs as a patron of coopers/barrel-makers, poor boys like boot blacks (shoe-shiners), repentant murderers, innkeepers, restaurateurs, and brewers (for brewers make the most popular item on an inn’s menu!).
Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths, Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-35
Even with the usual game-of-telephone distortions that happen over time, the transformation of three Roman generals into three pickled boys stands out. One interesting catalyst may have been art. According to one theory, depictions of the three officers stretching out their arms from a barred window in a prison tower may have been misinterpreted by ignorant spectators as three boys in a barrel. [10] According to another, the three bags of coins betokening a pawnshop could have been mistaken for the heads of three children. [11]
Whatever its provenance, the innkeeper story sealed the saint’s reputation as a patron of the youth, which in turn led to the composition of more stories and more patronages. To give but one example: Nicholas is said to have appeared in a dream to two juvenile delinquents and to have shown them the impact of their thieving on the lives of their victims. Consequently, the holy bishop became a patron saint of repentant thieves.
And since we are on the theme of patronages, we will mention two more. Because his relics secrete to this day a fragrant and healing oil called “myrrh” or “manna,” Nicholas is the patron saint of oil merchants and perfumers.
Feast Days
Saint Nicholas traditionally enjoys two feast days: December 6, which commemorates his death and which has been on the universal calendar for centuries, and May 9, which commemorates the translation of his relics to Bari and appears on local calendars. We are not certain why December 6 was chosen. It could have been the actual date that Nicholas passed away, but since December 6 was an important date in the port town of Myra, there may have been an ulterior motive. As the symbolic beginning of winter, December 6 marked the occasion when sacrifices were made to the goddess Artemis, protectress of seafarers, for all those who would dare the Mediterranean during the dangerous winter months. After Nicholas destroyed Artemis’ temple, it was only natural that he would take on some of her responsibilities, not as a god or a substitute for God but as a friend of both God and the people. [12]
But a more memorable explanation of the dates is from a Russian folktale. Once upon a time, a peasant’s cart became mired in the mud on a lonely road. St. Cassian passed by, but when the peasant asked for help, the saint declined, not wishing to soil his heavenly robes. Next came St. Nicholas, and when the peasant asked for help, Nicholas immediately leapt to his aid. After Cassian and Nicholas returned to heaven, God noticed that the latter’s robes were caked in mud. Rather than be upset, He gave two Nicholas feasts a year. Cassian’s feast, on the other, was assigned to February 29, which occurs only once every four years. [13]
It is impossible to know with absolute certainty what Nicholas of Myra did and did not do. Although Nicolaus’ praises were sung in writing as early as the late fourth century (not long after his death in 343), the first full-fledged biography of him did not appear until A.D. 710. [14]  Nevertheless, the early accounts of his life that we have are topographically accurate about the region and, as we have seen, culturally correct. [15]
Adam English, from whose excellent book The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus I have been generously borrowing, offers a useful metaphor for the best way to approach the stories about Saint Nicholas. In 1553 monks from the Monastery of Stavronikita on Mount Athos were fishing in the sea when their net dredged up a mosaic icon of St. Nicholas that had an oyster lodged in the forehead (monks had allegedly thrown icons into the sea centuries earlier to protect them from Iconoclasts). When the monks dislodged the oyster, the icon was disfigured and began to bleed. Getting to the “truth” about Saint Nicholas, English opines, is like that. He writes:
The barnacles of legend, myth, and exaggeration that have cemented themselves to the historical facts must be pried away. And yet, it should be kept in mind that the folkloric barnacles cannot be detached without permanently scarring—or even losing—the person. They are too tightly joined. [16]
St. Nicholas of the Oyster Icon
Perhaps the solution is like the one devised by the monks of Stavronikita. They venerate “St. Nicholas of the Oyster” (Agios Nikolaos o Streidas) as a miraculous icon, on which dried blood may still be seen. But they also cherish the two shells of the oyster, having turned them into sacred vessels.
Finally, it is well to ponder one intriguing piece of circumstantial evidence about Nicholas of Myra. Appropriately, Nicholas means “victory of the people.” Prior to the fourth century the name was rare, but after the fourth century it was common, beginning in Nicholas’ home region of Lycia and then spreading to the rest of Asia Minor, Constantinople, Greece, and beyond. Could it be that the people, recognizing Nicholas as their champion, gratefully named their children after him in ever increasing numbers? [17]
A version of this article appears as a chapter in Michael Foley's latest book Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022). An earlier version of the article also appeared as “The People’s Champion: St. Nicholas of Myra” in The Latin Mass magazine 30:4 (Christmas 2021), 40-45. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.
[1] “Nicholas, St,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., eds. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford University Press, 1997), 1148.
[2] Turning Towards the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2008).
[3] Adam English, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012), 58.
[4] English, 93.
[5] Earlier scholarship was skeptical of Nicholas’ attendance at the Council, but more recent work contends that it was probable (see English, 13; Gerardo Cioffari, Saint Nicholas: His Life, Miracles and Legends, trans. Victoria Sportelli [Bari: Centro Studi Nicolaiani, 2008], 9, 41).
[6] English, 108.
[7] Sulpicius Severus, Gallus III.6.3.
[8] English, 122.
[9] Oxford Dictionary, 1148.
[10] English, 151.
[11] Michael Walsh, Butler’s Lives of Patron Saints (Tunbridge Wells, England: Burns and Oates, 1987), 350.
[12] English, 167.
[13] English, 184.
[14] English, 14.
[15] English, 16.
[16] English, 3.
[17] English, 14.

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