St. Nicholas Day: Remembering the real St. Nicholas.

The feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December 6 for western Christian countries while in the east, the holiday is observed on December 19. Because of his piety and countless miracles attributed to him, he became one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, often ranked next to Mary. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, merchants, sailors, students, archers, repentant thieves, pawnbrokers, brewers and many more. St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of numerous cities and even entire countries like Greece and Russia.

And perhaps the height of St. Nicholas’ popularity was attained after he was associated with the Christmas celebration in the persona of Santa Claus. For experts, Santa Claus is the commercialized and americanized version of St. Nicholas and it’s important to stress the very distinct reasons why Christmas and St. Nicholas Day are celebrated.

The story of St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas or Nicholas of Myra lived during the 3rd-4th century. He was born in Roman Empire’s Asia Minor and was the only child of a wealthy and devoted Christian couple. The young Nicholas lost his parents due to illness and was left to the care for his uncle, the Bishop of Patara. With influence from his family, Nicholas became interested in church activities and the search for his true faith. After gaining training from his uncle, Nicholas was eventually ordained as a priest. It is said that all the wealth he had inherited was dedicated to charitable acts. One such story is that St. Nicholas helped a poor man find husbands for his three daughters by anonymously giving a bag of gold as dowry for each of the poor man’s children.

When St. Nicholas moved to Myra, the city needed a new bishop. And because of what is believed to be a divine intervention, he was eventually chosen as the bishop of Myra. However, early Christian persecution ordered by Emperor Diocletian caused Bishop Nicholas to be among those imprisoned and tortured for their faith. When the Roman Empire gained a new leader, Constantine, all religious prisoners including Bishop Nicholas were released.

Bishop Nicholas also became part of the Council of Nicaea organized by Constantine in 325 which resulted in the formalization of the Christian faith. The saint died and was buried in Myra, but in the succeeding centuries, his remains and relics were moved to Bari, Italy in 1169. There’s also an account saying that his remains were eventually transferred to Ireland by his relative. Even before the Catholic tradition of canonization, Nicholas of Myra was already considered and revered as a saint by early Christians. This popularity can be attributed to the numerous miracles associated with him.

It is said that a wicked butcher had murdered three children because of dire hunger, but St. Nicholas was able to save and revive the children’s bodies and finally sent them home. In another story, three Roman soldiers were destined to die due to false accusations, but they have prayed to God through St. Nicholas and were eventually saved when the saint was said to appear in Constantine’s dream. Another popular miracle of St. Nicholas was his rescue of sailors who were endangered by a storm in Aegean and Ionian seas.

Activities during St. Nicholas Day

Because the saint has been associated with Christmas, a separate St. Nicholas Day is celebrated mainly in Europe and just a few places in the U.S. The traditional celebration for the holiday revolves around the idea of St. Nicholas giving treats or gifts to children who were good the entire year and punishing those who were bad. Simple treats like candies are often placed under the pillows, inside shoes or in stockings prepared by children on the eve of the celebration. A man or the local priest himself dresses in a bishop-like Sinterklaas costume, wears a long beard and a red cape and does the visiting of children on their houses and communities.

In Germanic countries, the St. Nicholas’ character is often accompanied by the evil spirit Krampus. Krampus is traditionally believed to be the punisher or abductor of children who were bad and naughty the whole year. Today, Krampus is a reminder for young children to remain good.

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