Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Saint Nicholas

  Saint Nicholas was a historic 4th century saint and Greek Bishop of Myra, Lycia, Asia Minor ( modern day Turkey). Because of the many miracles that are attributed to his intercession, he is also know as Nikolaos the Wonderworker. Saint Nicholas had the reputation for gift giving in secret for example, putting coins in shoes of those who would  leave them out for him. This became the model for Santa Clause, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklass. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as did most early Christian saints. His relics were quickly moved to Bari, in southeastern Italy, in 1087, for which he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. His feastday is December 6.

  As a historical figure, Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered by Orthodox Christians and Catholics. He is also honored by various Lutheran and Anglican churches. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, thieves, prostitutes, fisherman, pawnbrokers, pharmacists,merchants,broadcasters, the falsely accused, travelers, virgins,shoemakers and children.He is also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors who guard his relics in Bari.

  Not much is known to be historically certain about Saint Nicholas  only that he was the Bishop of Myra in the 4th century.

   Now according to tradition he was born a Greek in the town of Patera, which was a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, at the time, and was located at Myra, Lycia  at the time when the region was of Greek heritage,culture and outlook and was part of the Roman province in Asia. As the only son of wealthy Christian parents, Saint Nicholas was raised to be a devout Christian. According to tradition, Saint Nichols was said to be a rigorous observer of the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays. His parents died of an epidemic while Saint Nicholas was still young. He was taken in by his uncle, whose name was also Nicholas, and who was the Bishop of Patera. While in his youth Saint Nicholas made religious pilgrimages to Egypt and Palestine. Shortly after his return he was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known for his generosity to the needy,his love of children and his concern for ships and sailors.

  Under the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD), who was ruthless in his persecution of Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith by being exiled and imprisoned. There were so many priests, bishops and deacons in prison that there was no room for real criminals... murders, thieves and such. After his release from prison because of the accession of Constantine, Saint Nicholas is said to have attended the first Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Saint Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD in Myra and was buried in cathedral church, where a unique relic called watery liquid that smells like rose water called, manna. It is believed by the faithful to hold miraculous powers.

In August of 1071 in the Battle of Manzikert,  the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Romanus  IV, faced the Sultan Alp Arsian of the Seljuk Turks. The battle ended in the defeat and capture of Romanus. As a result Asia Minor was temporarily taken control of by the invading Turks. The Byzantines did regain its control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Commenus. But early in his reign Myra was overrun by Islamic invaders and in the confusion sailors from Bari in Apulia took the remains of the saint from his burial church in Myra over the objections of the Orthodox monks. Saint Nicholas' remains arrived in Bari on May 9, 1087. In some variations the relics of Saint Nicolas were taken by thieves or pirates. In others they are said to be taken because of a vision of Saint Nicholas appeared and commanded that his relics be removed in order to be kept safe from the impending Muslim conquest.

   There have been many stories and legends about Saint Nicholas' life through the centuries. These accounts help us understand his life and his devotion plus why he is so loved a revered as protector and helper of the needy.

  One story seems to have a Sweeney Todd feel to it. In this one a famine has struck and a malicious butcher lures three children to his house, where he kills and butchers them, putting the children's remains in a barrel to cure, with the plan to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, who is visiting the region to care for the hungry, sees through the butcher evil crime and brings the three children back to life through his prayers. In another version of the same story, it was three clerks that  who wished to stay the night. The man murders them and upon the advice of his wife he turns them into meat pies. Saint Nicholas sees through this scheme and bring the clerks back to life.

  Another story, which is one of the oldest, shows Saint Nicholas as protector of children even after his death. The townspeople of Myra were celebrating Saint Nicholas on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from the island of Crete came into the district. They came and stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas as booty. On their way out of town they kidnapped a young boy, named Basilios, to make into a slave. The ruler or emir of the Arabs chose Basilios to be his personal cupbearer, because Bsilios did not know the language of his captor he would not understand what the emir was saying to those around him. So, for the next year Basilios was the emir's slave, waiting on the emir and bringing him his wine that was in a golden cup.Meanwhile, Basilios parents were full of grief over the loss of their only child and the year passed very slowly for them. As the next Saint Nicholas day neared, Basilios mother would not join in the celebration because for her it marked a day of tragedy. She was, however persuaded to have a simple observance- with quiet prayers for son's safe keeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was doing his duties of serving the emir, he was whisked up and away. The boy was terrified but Saint Nicholas appeared to him and set Basilios back at his home in Myra, still holding the emir's cup. This is the first story that has Saint Nicholas protecting children.

  Now what is perhaps the most famous story of Saint Nicholas is the one of the three sisters whose family was so poor that there would be no dowry for any of the girls, thus forcing them into prostitution:

  In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands with something of value- a dowry. The larger the dowry the better prospects of a good husband for the young woman. Without a dowry, the more unlikely a woman would marry (sound familiar Jane Austen fan?). Anyway, there was this poor man that had three daughters and of course he could not afford proper dowries for them. So this would mean that they would remain single and probably, because of no other employment,would end up becoming prostitutes. Hearing of the plight of the poor man and his daughters, Saint Nicholas decided to help them. But because Saint Nicholas was a man who was too modest to help the man in public and because the man may have been to humiliated to accept charity, Saint Nicholas went to the man's house in the cover of night and threw three purses ( one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through an open window into the poor man's home. The bags of gold are said to have landed in either a pair of shoes or a pair of stockings that were left before the home's fire to dry.

  One version has Saint Nicholas throwing a bag of gold for three consecutive nights. Another one has him throwing the bags over a three year period, each time on the eve of when  one of the daughters is to come of age. The third time this is to happen the father want to know who their benefactor is, so he lies in wait. In one version the father confronts Saint Nicholas, only to be told by the saint that it is not he who should be thanked, but God. In another story, Saint Nicholas learns of the father's plan and instead drops the third bag of gold down the chimney instead.

  This is what has led to the custom of hanging stockings or putting out shoes, in anticipation of Saint Nicholas. In a variation of the story it is gold balls that Saint Nicholas gives the sisters instead of bags of gold money. That is why gold balls,  sometimes represented by oranges, are one of the symbols of saint Nicholas. And therefore Saint Nicholas is a gift giver.

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