St. Nicholas

Bishop of Myra (Fourth Century)
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St. Nicholas is one of the most popular of all saints: patron of Russia and Greece and of many classes of people, from children to prostitutes. Many hundreds of churches are named after him, and his feast day is an occasion for ardent celebration in many parts of the globe. But as for his biography, it may be summarized in the simple statement that he served as bishop of Myra, a provincial capital in Asia Minor sometime in the fourth century.  

The most curious development in his cult has been the amalgamation of this fourth-century bishop with the features of a Scandinavian elf. The transfiguration of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus has been traced to Dutch Protestants living in New Amsterdam. As the story made its way back to England, the familiar features of Father Christmas gradually took shape until he had achieved iconographic status.  

In this role there are at least echoes of certain ancient legends. In one story Nicholas rescued three young girls whose father, for want of a dowry, was about to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas tossed three bags of gold through their window, enough to pay the dowry for each sister. In another story he restored three little boys to life after they were murdered by an evil maniac. Well does he deserve to be remembered as the patron of children, honored not just as the purveyor of toys but as a protector of the innocent, particularly the victims of human trafficking.  

“The Giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic His giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.” —Attributed to St. Nicholas 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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