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St. Nicholas - December 6

St. Nicholas - December 6
St. Nicholas - December 6

St. Nicholas is the Saint better known as “Santa Claus” (Sinterklaas in the Dutch whence “Santa Claus” comes). His image in America has been mixed up with a lot of traits and imagery from sources as disparate as the poetry of Clement Moore, pagan Norse mythology, and American advertising. In real life, though, St .Nicholas was a beloved and wonderful Bishop of Myra (in modern day Turkey). He was born in Asia Minor in A.D. 260 and orphaned at an early age.

As a young man, he made a pilgrimage to Palestine and Egypt, becoming a Bishop upon his return. He was imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian, but was released after Constantine came to rule. According to legend, he was present at the Council of Nicea and became so incensed at Arius — the heretical Bishop whose denial of the two natures of Christ spread through the Church — that he slapped him across the face. He intervened twice in cases in which innocent men were accused of crimes they did not commit, once appearing to Constantine and the local prefect in a dream, encouraging them to do the right thing in their regard.

Many stories about his life indicate his kindness and reveal miracles. The Golden Legend, written in A.D. 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, tells us how the Saint threw bags of gold coins to a man in order to provide dowries for the man’s daughters and save them from lives of lechery. Another tale from the Golden Legend explains how St. Nicholas saved sailors from a tempest as well as the story of a Jewish man who was robbed, and how St. Nicholas used the event to imitate Christ, thereby not only bringing the Jewish man to Christ, but causing the thieves to repent. Another famous story, this one not contained in the Golden Legend, tells how three children were killed by an innkeeper and put into a tub of brine. St. Nicholas, by the power of God, brought them back to life.

When the great Saint died, he was buried in Myra, but the town was later taken by the Saracens in A.D. 1034. The Italians rallied to gather and preserve his relics from desecration, and in 1097, sailors brought them to Bari, Italy. A lovely church — the Church of San Niccolo — was built to house them, and there they can be found today. A curative Oil of Saints (This phenomenon is the flow of a healing liquid, called “oil of saints,” which exudes from the Saint’s body or tomb. In the case of some Saints who exude this “oil,” the flow of liquid is periodic and not constant.) — “Manna di San Niccolo” (myrrh from Saint Nicholas) — is said to exude from his relics to this day.

St. Nicholas is the patron of children, sailors, and bakers, and is represented in art as a bearded, older man — usually mitered (a bishops headdress) — holding 3 gold coins or a bag of coins, or three orbs. He is also often shown with children, and/or a ship. Today is, for many Catholics, the day for gift-giving (some do this on Christmas, some do this on the Feast of the Epiphany in memory of the gifts the Three Kings gave to Baby Jesus, and some spread the gift-giving out on all these days). In some places, “St. Nicholas,” dressed as a Bishop, will show up and hand out presents to the little ones, and children put their shoes in front of the fireplace to be filled with candy and presents by morning. Because coins are one of the many symbols of St. Nicholas, chocolate coins are a perfect gift to put in the children’s’ shoes. Christmas stockings instead of shoes can be used, or buy adult-sized wooden shoes, paint and decorate them, and bring them out for use on St. Nicholas’s Day.

An icon, even a nice Holy Card, of St. Nicholas should be visible today if at all possible. Surround it with greenery and candles, and tell your children the story of the Saint Nicholas behind the “Santa Claus.”

On St. Nicholas’s Feast Day, it is customary to serve Speculaas cookies, a spicy Dutch cookie, cut into shapes relevant to the life of St. Nicholas (coins, miters, ships, balls, money bags), and painted with colorful icing.