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 Nicaea 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:
And it was so that
one, his neighbour, had then three daughters, virgins, and he was a nobleman:
but for the poverty of them together, they were constrained, and in very
purpose to abandon them to the sin of lechery, so that by the gain and winning
of their infamy they might be sustained. And when the holy man Nicholas knew
hereof he had great horror of this villainy, and threw by night secretly
into the house of the man a mass of gold wrapped in a cloth. And when the
man arose in the morning, he found this mass of gold, and rendered to God
therefor great thankings, and therewith he married his oldest daughter.
And a little while after this holy servant of God threw in another mass of
gold, which the man found, and thanked God, and purposed to wake, for to
know him that so had aided him in his poverty. And after a few days Nicholas
doubled the mass of gold, and cast it into the house of this man. He awoke
by the sound of the gold, and followed Nicholas, which fled from him, and
he said to him: Sir, flee not away so but that I may see and know thee.
Then he ran after him more hastily, and knew that it was Nicholas; and anon
he kneeled down, and would have kissed his feet, but the holy man would not,
but required him not to tell nor discover this thing as long as he lived.
Another tale from
the Golden Legend explains how St. Nicholas saved sailors from a tempest:
It is read in a
chronicle that, the blessed Nicholas was at the Council of Nice; and on a
day, as a ship with mariners were in perishing on the sea, they prayed and
required devoutly Nicholas, servant of God, saying: If those things that
we have heard of thee said be true, prove them now.
And anon a man appeared in his likeness, and said: Lo! see ye me not? ye
called me, and then he began to help them in their exploit of the sea, and
anon the tempest ceased.
And when they were come to his church, they knew him without any man to show
him to them, and yet they had never seen him. And then they thanked God and
him of their deliverance. And he bade them to attribute it to the mercy of
God, and to their belief, and nothing to his merits.
The Golden Legend
also gives us the story of a Jewish man who was robbed, and how St. Nicholas
used the event imitate Christ, thereby not only bringing the Jewish man to
Christ, but causing the thieves to repent:
Another Jew saw
the virtuous miracles of St. Nicholas, and did do make an image of the saint,
and set it in his house, and commanded him that he should keep well his house
when he went out, and that he should keep well all his goods, saying to him:
Nicholas, lo! here be all my goods, I charge thee to keep them, and if thou
keep them not well, I shall avenge me on thee in beating and tormenting thee.
And on a time, when the Jew was out, thieves came and robbed all his goods,
and left, unborne away, only the image. And when the Jew came home he found
him robbed of all his goods. He areasoned the image saying these words: Sir
Nicholas, I had set you in my house for to keep my goods from thieves, wherefore
have ye not kept them? Ye shall receive sorrow and torments, and shall have
pain for the thieves. I shall avenge my loss, and subdue my madness in beating
And then took the Jew the image, and beat it, and tormented it cruelly. Then
happed a great marvel, for when the thieves departed the goods, the holy
saint, like as he had been in his array, appeared to the thieves, and said
to them: Wherefore have I been beaten so cruelly for you and have so many
torments? See how my body is hewed and broken; see how that the red blood
runneth down by my body; go ye fast and restore it again, or else the ire
of God Almighty shall make you as to be one out of his wit, and that all
men shall know your felony, and that each of you shall be hanged.
And they said: Who art thou that sayest to us such things? And he said to
them: I am Nicholas the servant of Jesu Christ, whom the Jew hath so cruelly
beaten for his goods that ye bare away.
Then they were afeard, and came to the Jew, and heard what he had done to
the image, and they told him the miracle, and delivered to him again all
his goods. And thus came the thieves to the way of truth, and the Jew to
the way of Jesu Christ.
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 tere they can be found today. A curative Oil of
Saints -- "Manna di San Niccolo" -- is said to exude from them to this
St. Nicholas is the patron of children, sailors, and bakers, and is represented
in art as a bearded, older man -- usually mitred -- holding 3 gold coins
or a bag of coins, or three orbs. He is also often shown with children, and/or
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 3 Kings gave to Baby Jesus, and some spread the gift-giving out
on all these days). In some places, especially in the Eastern Catholic churches,
"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 thing to put
in the childrens' shoes. One can use Christmas stockings instead of shoes,
or one can buy adult-sized wooden shoes, paint and decorate them, and bring
them out for use just on St. Nicholas's Day.
In any case, 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, mitres, ships, balls, money bags), and painted with colorful icing:
(makes 3 dozen depending on size)
1 Cup (2 sticks) sweet butter, at room temperature
2 cups dark brown sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg or mace
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
A little beaten egg white for consistency, if desired
In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy. Stir in the
eggs one at a time, blending thoroughly after each addition. Stir in the
lemon rind. Sift the spices and salt with the flour and baking powder, and
stir gradually into the butter mixture. Wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap
and chill for several hours or overnight. On a floured surface, roll out
the dough to about 1/8 inch, or for larger figures to about 1/4 inch. Cut
into shapes (Bishop, Bishop's staff, Bishop's mitre, ship, coins, etc.) and
bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned (don't overbake). When cool, mix
together icing ingredients and paint cookies as desired.