Feast Day: December 6
One of the most beloved saints in both Western and Eastern Christianity, Nicholas was born in Asia Minor (what is now Turkey) about the middle of the third century, to wealthy, yet devout, parents who provided him with an excellent education as well empathy for those less fortunate. Orphaned at an early age, he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine; he later was ordained a priest, and eventually made Bishop of Myra (Myrrh).
Nicholas was credited in numerous legends for saving sojourners, defending young children (he famously brought back to life three boys who were pickled in a brine tub by an evil innkeeper), and giving anonymous gifts to those in need. One legend has it that he appeared off the coast of Lycia to some storm-tossed mariners and brought them safely to port. Sailors in the Aegean and Ionian seas had a “Star of St. Nicholas” and were wished a safe voyage with the words, “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.”
One of the best-known tales concerns three unmarried daughters whose father could not afford their dowries. Unable to marry, their likely destiny was the streets. In one version, Bishop Nicholas climbed on the roof three nights in a row and tossed three bags of gold down their chimney, aiming for their stockings, which had been hung by the fire to dry. The girls got their dowries and their father (who had apparently spied Nicholas on the roof) was so overcome with gratitude that he spread the word about the wonderful kindness of the bishop.
Because of this and similar stories, Nicholas became a symbol of anonymous gift-giving. Called Sankt Nikolaus in Germany and Sanct Herr Nicholaas or Sinter Klaas in Holland, Nicholas appears to have replaced various pagan “gift-bearers” (such as the German Berchta and Farmhand Ruprecht). The feast day of Nicholas was traditionally observed on December 6. After the Reformation, protestants encouraged veneration of the Christkindl (Christ Child) as a gift-giver on his own feast day, December 25 (hence the name Kris Kringle). But the St. Nicholas tradition continued, eventually becoming a part of Christmastide around the world. He is called Père Noël in France, Julenisse in Scandinavia, Father Christmas in England and Santa Claus in the US.
In the year 1087 his body was taken from Myra to the city of Bari in Italy, where his remains still lie in the church of San Nicola and are reputed to exude a fragrant myrrh-like substance known as “Manna of St. Nicholas.”
Nicholas is often depicted with three bags of gold, which were later simplified to disks or balls. (Bari was a center of pawnbrokering, hence pawnshops traditionally display three gold balls as an emblem.) Groups of three are associated with him, as well as stars (including starfish) and myrrh (one of the gifts of the Three Wisemen).