Saint Nicholas Of Bari
A fuller account of the life of Saint
was St. Nicholas of Bari?
The Basilica of Bari is dedicated to St. Nicholas, a holy bishop
from Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey) who lived during the reign
of the Emperor Constantine (306-337 A.D.). From his life, written
in the 4th-5th centuries, only one chapter, the Praxis de Stratelatis,
exists in its complete form, recalling the intervention of St.
Nicholas on behalf of three Myrans condemned to death and of three
Roman officials imprisoned in Constantinople. His participation
in the Council of Nicaea (325) was documented by the Byzantine
historian Theodore the Lector around 515 A.D. Other stories of
the Saint, such as the dowry of the three poor girls (symbolised
by the three golden balls on the Gospel) had been passed down
through the oral tradition of Myra and were collected by Michael
the Archimandrite in the 8th century. Apart from the many tales
about the Saint's acts he also remains the symbol of charity and
defender of the weak. St. Nicholas is greatly revered throughout
the Orthodox world, especially in Russia where not only the universal
feast day of December 6th is celebrated, but also the 9th of May
as in Bari (in commemoration of the transfer of his relics to
Bari in 1087).
of the life of Saint Nicholas
Nicholas was born during the third century in the village
At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast
of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout
Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young.
Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money
to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist
the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life
to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young
man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his
generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his
concern for sailors and ships.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted
Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled
and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests,
and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals - murderers,
thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the
Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra
and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic,
called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said
to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas.
The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St.
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told
of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. These accounts help us understand
his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered
as protector and helper of those in need.
One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days
a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something
of value - a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance
that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry,
a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without
dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously,
on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their
home providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through
an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes
left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children
hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts
from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls
instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes
represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.
And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.
Another story tells of three theological students, traveling on
their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered
them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened
that Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped
at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up,
and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God
the three boys were restored to life and wholeness.
Saint Nicholas |One of the oldest stories showing St. Nicholas
as a protector of children takes place long after his death.
The townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good saint
on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates
from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures
from the Church of Saint Nicholas to take away as booty.
As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios,
to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios
to be his personal cupbeare, as not knowing the language,
Basilios would not understand what the king said to those
around him. So, for the next year Basilios waited on the
king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios'
parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the
year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the next St. Nicholas'
feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in
the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy for her.
| However, she was persuaded to have a simple
observance at home—with quiet prayers for Basilios'
safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks
serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked up and away. St.
Nicholas appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and
set him down at his home back in Myra.
Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared
before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup.
This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting
children - which became his primary role in the West.
In France the story is told of three small children, wandering
in their play until lost, lured, and captured by an evil butcher.
St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life
and to their families. And so St. Nicholas is the patron and protector
Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. When he was young,
Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked
where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus'
life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a mighty storm
threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified
sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing
them all. And so St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers.
Other stories tell of Nicholas saving his people from famine,
sparing the lives of those innocently accused, and much more.
He did many kind and generous deeds in secret, expecting nothing
in return. Within a century of his death he was celebrated as
a saint. Today he is venerated in the East as a wonder, or miracle
worker and in the West as patron of a great variety of persons
- children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans,
laborers, travelers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable
maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes,
captives, perfumers, even thieves and murderers! He is known as
the friend and protector of all in trouble or need.
Sailors, claiming St. Nicholas as patron, carried stories of
his favor and protection far and wide. St. Nicholas chapels
were built in many seaports. As his popularity spread during
the Middle Ages, he became the patron saint of Apulia (Italy),
Sicily, Greece, and Lorraine (France), and many cities in Germany,
Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Following his baptism in Constantinople, Vladimir I of Russia
brought St. Nicholas' stories and devotion to St. Nicholas to
his homeland where Nicholas became the most beloved saint. Nicholas
was so widely revered that more than 2,000 churches were named
for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in
Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred
Nicholas' tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.
Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians
were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult.
There were both religious and commercial advantages in having
a major pilgrimage site, so the Italian cities of Venice and
Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics. In the spring of 1087,
sailors from Bari succeeded in spiriting away the bones, bringing
them to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy. An
impressive church was built over St. Nicholas' crypt and many
faithful journeyed to honor the saint who had rescued children,
prisoners, sailors, famine victims, and many others through
his compassion, generosity, and the countless miracles attributed
to his intercession. The Nicholas shrine in Bari was one of
medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centers and Nicholas became
known as "Saint in Bari." To this day pilgrims and
tourists visit Bari's great Basilica di San Nicola.
Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated
by Catholics and Orthodox and honored by Protestants. By his
example of generosity to those in need, especially children,
St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life.
Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December
6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity.
In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for
the poor - and sometimes for themselves! In the Netherlands
and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain
to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds. December 6th
is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much
of Europe. For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated
on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in
the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles.
Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the
saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small
gifts. Simple gift-giving in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas
Day focus on the Christ Child.
The Basilica of Saint Nicholas
NICHOLAS OF MYRA BISHOP, CONFESSOR C. 342
Feast: December 6
The veneration with which this saint has been honored in both
East and West, the number of altars and churches erected in
his memory, and the countless stories associated with his name
all bear witness to something extraordinary about him. Yet the
one fact concerning the life of Nicholas of which we can be
absolutely certain is that he was bishop of Myra in the fourth
century. According to tradition, he was born at Patara, Lycia,
a province of southern Asia Minor where St. Paul had planted
the faith. Myra, the capital, was the seat of a bishopric founded
by St. Nicander. The accounts of Nicholas given us by the Greek
Church all say that he was imprisoned in the reign of Diocletian,
whose persecutions, while they lasted, were waged with great
severity. Some twenty years after this he appeared at the Council
of Nicaea to join in the condemnation of Arianism. We are also
informed that he died at Myra and was buried in his cathedral.
Such a wealth of literature has accumulated around Nicholas
that we are justified in giving a brief account of some of the
popular traditions, which in the main date from medieval times.
St. Methodius, patriarch of Constantinople towards the middle
of the ninth century, wrote a life of the saint in which he
declares that "up to the present the life of the distinguished
shepherd has been unknown to the majority of the faithful."
Nearly five hundred years had passed since the death of the
good St. Nicholas, and Methodius' account, therefore, had to
be based more on legend than actual fact.
He was very well brought up, we are told, by pious and virtuous
parents, who set him to studying the sacred books at the age
of five. His parents died while he was still young, leaving
him with a comfortable fortune, which he resolved to use for
works of charity. Soon an opportunity came. A citizen of Patara
had lost all his money and his three daughters could not find
husbands because of their poverty. In despair their wretched
father was about to commit them to a life of shame. When Nicholas
heard of this, he took a bag of gold and at night tossed it
through an open window of the man's house. Here was a dowry
for the eldest girl, and she was quickly married. Nicholas did
the same for the second and then for the third daughter. On
the last occasion the father was watching by the window, and
overwhelmed his young benefactor with gratitude.
It happened that Nicholas was in the city of Myra when the clergy
and people were meeting together to elect a new bishop, and
God directed them to choose him. This was at the time of Diocletian's
persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century. The Greek
writers go on to say that now, as leader, "the divine Nicholas
was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown
into prison with other Christians. But when the great and religious
Constantine, chosen by God, assumed the imperial diadem of the
Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with
them the illustrious Nicholas." St. Methodius adds that
"thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis
of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy,
which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison." He
does not speak of Nicholas' presence at the Council of Nicaea,
but according to other traditions he was not only there but
went so far in his indignation as to slap the arch-heretic Arius
in the face! At this, they say, he was deprived of his episcopal
insignia and imprisoned, but Our Lord and His Mother appeared
and restored to him both his liberty and his office. Nicholas
also took strong measures against paganism. He tore down many
temples, among them one to the Greek goddess Artemis, which
was the chief pagan shrine of the district.
Nicholas was also the guardian of his people in temporal affairs.
The governor had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to
death. On the day fixed for their execution Nicholas stayed
the hand of the executioner and released them. Then he turned
to the governor and reproved him so sternly that he repented.
There happened to be present that day three imperial officers,
Nepotian, Ursus, and Herpylion, on their way to duty in Phrygia.
Later, after their return, they were imprisoned on false charges
of treason by the prefect and an order was procured from the
Emperor Constantine for their death. In their extremity they
remembered the bishop of Myra's passion for justice and prayed
to God for his intercession. That night Nicholas appeared to
Constantine in a dream, ordering him to release the three innocent
officers. The prefect had the same dream, and in the morning
the two men compared their dreams, then questioned the accused
officers. On learning that they had prayed for the intervention
of Nicholas, Constantine freed them and sent them to the bishop
with a letter asking him to pray for the peace of the world.
In the West the story took on more and more fantastic forms;
in one version the three officers eventually became three boys
murdered by an innkeeper and put into a brine tub from which
Nicholas rescued them and restored them to life.
The traditions all agree that Nicholas was buried in his episcopal
city of Myra. By the time of Justinian, some two centuries later,
his feast was celebrated and there was a church built over his
tomb. The ruins of this domed basilica, which stood in the plain
where the city was built, were excavated in the nineteenth century.
The tremendous popularity of the saint is indicated by an anonymous
writer of the tenth century who declares: "The West as
well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there
are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in
the isles, in the farthest parts of the earth, his name is revered
and churches are erected in his honor." In 1034 Myra was
taken by the Saracens. Several Italian cities made plans to
get possession of the relics of the famous Nicholas. The citizens
of Bari finally in 1087 carried them off from the lawful Greek
custodians and their Moslem masters. A new church was quickly
built at Bari and Pope Urban II was present at the enshrining
of the relics. Devotion to St. Nicholas now increased and many
miracles were attributed to his intercession.
The image of St. Nicholas appeared often on Byzantine seals.
Artists painted him usually with the three boys in a tub or
else tossing a bag of gold through a window. In the West he
has often been invoked by prisoners, and in the East by sailors.
One legend has it that during his life-time he appeared off
the coast of Lycia to some storm-tossed mariners who invoked
his aid, and he brought them safely to port. Sailors in the
Aegean and Ionian seas had their "star of St. Nicholas"
and wished one another safe voyages with the words, "May
St. Nicholas hold the tiller."
From the legend of the three boys may have come the tradition
of his love for children, celebrated in both secular and religious
observances. In many places there was once a year a ceremonious
installation of a "boy bishop." In Germany, Switzerland,
and the Netherlands gifts were bestowed on children at Christmas
time in St. Nicholas' name. The Dutch Protestant settlers of
New Amsterdam made the custom popular on this side of the Atlantic.
The Eastern saint was converted into a Nordic magician (Saint
Nicholas—Sint Klaes—Santa Claus). His popularity
was greatest of all in Russia, where he and St. Andrew were
joint national patrons. There was not a church that did not
have some sort of shrine in honor of St. Nicholas and the Russian
Orthodox Church observes even the feast of the translation of
his relics. So many Russian pilgrims came to Bari in Czarist
times that the Russian government maintained a church, a hospital,
and a hospice there. St. Nicholas is also patron of Greece,
Apulia, Sicily, and Lorraine, of many cities and dioceses. At
Rome the basilica of St. Nicholas was founded as early as the
end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh century. In
the later Middle Ages four hundred churches were dedicated to
him in England alone. St. Nicholas' emblems are children, a
mitre, a vessel.
Link to the
official website for Saint Nicholas in Bari