Saint Nicholas was born in the third century around 275 AD in Patara, a village on the southeast Lycian coast on the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Turkey. There existed in Patara an early Christian community which was likely started by the Apostle Paul when he and Luke were there on Paul's third missionary journey to Tyre in the first century. Three miles from Patara is the capital of Lycia called Myra, which was the seat of a bishopric founded by St. Nicander.
Nicholas was brought up by pious and virtuous parents, his father Epiphanes and his mother Johane, who had been practicing Christianity for several generations and taught him to study the Scriptures at a young age. Nicholas's parents were relatively wealthy business owners; some say that they managed a fishing fleet. His parents died during a plague while he was still young, leaving him with a substantial fortune. Michael the Archimandrite wrote The Life of Saint Nicholas in the first half of the 9th century. Here he writes about how Saint Nicholas asked God for direction:
"Make known to me, Lord, the path upon which I am to journey, because to You I have lifted my soul from all triviality and worldly lowliness." (Psalm 143.8). He seemed to hear God, as it were, speaking clearly through the holy prophet David: "Even if wealth abounds, do not surrender your heart" (Psalm 62.11). And similarly the author of Proverbs plainly teaches: "Let almsgiving and acts of faith not abandon you, but fasten them around your neck and you will find grace" (Proverbs 3.3) as well as "That person benefits his soul, who has pity on the destitute and those who happen to be poor in their livelihood." (Proverbs 11.17). Nicholas did not cease to continually hand over his abundance — to store it up in the secure treasure-houses of heaven."
series of edictsDiocletian persecution
Edict of Milan
The Council of Nicea
Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity, the Great Persecution had ceased, but all was not well in Christendom. A heresy had been forming that was beginning to gain a following: Arianism. Arius, a priest from Alexandria, was teaching a doctrine that denied the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. He taught that Jesus Christ was not equal to the Father by nature, but is the first creation of God. Rather than Jesus being both God and man, the Jesus that Aruis described ended up being neither-not quite God and not quite man.
To resolve the issue, Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea in 325. It was modeled after the Jerusalem council in Acts, which also is known as the First Ecumenical Council. It is estimated that 1,800 bishops, priests, and deacons were in attendance. Saint Nicholas's participation is documented by Byzantine historian Theodore the Lector. Saint Methoudius claims that Nicholas beleived Arianism to be a "death-dealing poison" and all of Myra was left untouched by the heresy because of the fervor in which Nicholas attacked this offensive doctrine.
At the the Council of Nicaea, Arius presented his case before all the attendees. At some point, Nicholas could no longer tolerate the blasphemies Arius was saying against God, so he got up, walked up to him, and punched Arius in the face, knocking him to the floor. Nicholas' fellow bishops were outraged that he lost control and hit Arius. The canons of the church forbid clergy from striking any human being, so he was brought before Constantine, who stripped him of his vestments and had him thrown into prison for what would have been the length of the council. Ashamed of his actions, Nicholas prayed to God and asked for forgiveness in the dark of his prison cell.
In the night, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary appeared to some of the bishops, telling them that no action should be taken against him, since he had acted out of extreme love for God, rather than hate for Arius. Jesus and Mary also visited Nicholas that night. Jesus placed a book of the Gospels in Nicholas' hands and the Virgin returned to him the bishop's vestmenst which had been taken away. When the guard came to visit him the next morning, he was surprised to see the broken chains on the floor and the good bishop sitting, dressed in his vestments and peacefully reading Scripture. The story was immediately reported to Emperor Constantine, who ordered that Nicholas return to the Council and the full dignity of his office. This is why on many icons of Saint Nicholas there images of Christ presenting the Gospel book and Mary presenting his vestments.
The council lasted from May 20 to June 19, 325 and resulted in the formal condemnation of Arianism and the declaration of the Nicene Creed that is said at every divine liturgy. These lines from the Nicene Creed were developed to reflect the true teaching of the Trinity in opposition to Arianism:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.
Saint Nicholas would go on to perform many more miracles, to be loved by the people in and out of Myra both during his life and after his death. He died peacefully on December 6, 343, over 1,600 years ago this very day, and was buried in his city of Myra. He left behind no writings of theological works, but stories of his life are passed on from generation to generation. Although he didn't die a martyr, he is considered saint because he couldn't find in himself the capability to not love his neighbor and care for those in need. Two hundred years later, Justinian would celebrate his feast day and have a church built over his tomb. In the centuries that followed millions of people would call him their patron, of which I am one. Here is en exhaustive list of things Saint Nicholas is a patron of.
Vladimir Lossyky in The Meaning of Icons, has the following to say about the uniqueness of Saint Nicholas:
The quite exceptional veneration of St.Nicholas is well known. In the liturgic weekly cycle of the Orthodox Church, among the days of the week dedicated to the Saviour and to different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only three persons are singled out by name: the Mother of God, John the Forerunner and St.Nicholas. The reason for this special veneration of this bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings, is evidently that the Church sees in him a personification of a shepherd, of its defender and intercessor. "Having fulfilled the Gospel of Christ . . . thou hast appeared in truth as a most hallowed shepherd to the world. According to his Life, when St.Nicholas was raised to the dignity of bishop he said: "...This dignity and this office demand different usage, in order that one should live no longer for oneself but for others." This "life for others" is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for [people]—his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death. Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast, uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, "he was meek and gentle in his disposition and humble in spirit".
But even at death, his story is not over...
Pointing to Jesus
Nicholas's tomb became a ever increasing place of pilgrimage through the centuries, and thousands of people would come to visit it. The Emperor and Saint Justinian would build a church over his tomb as well as build more churches in Constantinople after his name. When Vladimir the Great brought Christianity to Russia, Saint Nicholas also became the patron saint of Russia. Saint Nicholas was loved during his life, but all the more after his death.
In 1043 Myra was overtaken by Muslims, and there was a fear that pilgrimage could become difficult and dangerous or that the shrine might even be desecrated. During this time, a group of merchants from Bari, a seaport in the kingdom of Naples situated on the Adriatic Gulf, sailed in three ships to the coast of Lycia (possibly under the request of the Pope of Rome) to obtain St. Nicholas' relics. They waited for an opportunity when none of the Muslim faithful were around and entered the church in which the relics were kept. They were met by a small community of monks who showed them were the relics were. The Barians told the monks why they were there, and the monks were adamant in their opposition. A confrontation ensued which resulted in the merchants taking the relics. After the Barians left the church, the monks told the inhabitants of Myra what happened, but they were too late to stop them before the merchants had made it safely aboard the ship. They landed at Bari on the 9th of May 1087, and the sacred relics were deposited in the Church of St. Stephen for safe keeping. From the first day the relics were in Bari, people were cured of various diseases.
I suppose it depends on who is telling the story if this was a good thing or not. If the merchants had not taken the body, would have the relics of Nicholas been desecrated? Was it the best thing that they be moved to Rome so that those in the West could venerate Saint Nicholas as well? Whatever the right thing to do was, Saint Nicholas now lies in Bari and a feast celebrates the transfer of his relics to Bari is held every May 9th. This is why sometimes people call him Nicholas of Bari.
A crypt for Saint Nicholas was completed by October 1089 and Pope Urban II laid the relics of Nicholas beneath the crypt's altar. The main church was finished ten years later, but sometime before 1197 (when it was officially consecrated) the Romanesque-style Basilica di San Nicola was complete, and now holds the relics of Saint Nicholas.
Oil is known to exude from Saint Nicholas's relics called "Manna of Saint Nicholas" and is used to anoint the sick. It was known to do this in the crypt in Myra as well as the crypt in Bari. Between 1954 and 1957 when the crypt was being renovated, the tomb was opened and the bones were exhumed. The relics were placed inside an urn and were visible for three years. The bones were observed to perspire and the linen sheet which held the relics was found to be soaking wet when the relics were re-interred in the tomb. And it still does this to this day.
When the bones were removed, a team of scientists was allowed to photograph and measure the contents of his crypt. In 2005, the measurements were sent to a forensics lab in England. It was revealed that he was barely five feet tall and had a broken nose (presumably from his imprisonment during the Diocletian persecution). Based on Saint Nicholas's skull, scientists have created a facial reconstruction showing what he may have looked like.
After the Reformation, Martin Luther tried to squash the celebration of Saint Nicholas day, when gifts were traditionally given. He didn't like the idea of saints and thought he day emphasized Saint Nicholas too much, rather than the true focus; Jesus. He introduced the idea of the Christ Child (or Christkindl in German) who would bring gifts on Christmas Eve when kids weren't looking. When the Puritans and the Anabaptists came to America, they wanted nothing to do with it, so they outlawed Christmas and kept it as a work day. In fact, Congress was in session the first Christmas under America's new constitution and Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870. So the first "War on Christmas" was less about being able to say, "Merry Christmas", and more about not saying it all.
Later Germans would bring the Christkindl to America and the Christmas Eve gift-giving tradition and the Dutch would bring Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is a contracted form of Saint Nicholas, and would become Santa Claus. Christkindl would be corrupted in English to Kris Kringle, which is the "real name" of Santa Claus. Mix it all together with a bit of Americana and you get Christmas as we know it today.
Despite all the changes over the last hundred years, Saint Nicholas is still here, though some have forgotten, doing what Luther claimed he wasn't:
Pointing to Jesus.
Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
The truth of things hath revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith, an icon of meekness, and a teacher of temperance; for this cause, thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty. O Father and Hierarch Nicholas, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.
Kontakion in the Third Tone
Saintly One, (St. Nicholas) in Myra you proved yourself a priest; for in fulfilling the Gospel of Christ, venerable One, you laid down your life for your people and saved the innocent from death. For this you were sanctified as One learned in divine grace.