Saint Nicholas (Greek: Ἅγιος Νικόλαος, Hágios Nikólaos, Latin: Sanctus Nicolaus); (March 15, 270 – December 6, 343), also called Nikolaos of Myra, was a historical Christian saint and Greek bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor (nowadays Demre, Turkey).
Due to the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Νικόλαος ὁ υαυματουργός, Nikólaos ho Thaumaturgós). Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, moneylenders and students in various cities and countries of Europe. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as was common among the first Christian saints, and his legendary habit of giving gifts in secret gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus (“St. Nicholas”) through Sinterklaas.
The historic San Nicolás was born in Patara, Lycia in Asia Minor (now Turkey). In his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and the area of Palestine. Shortly after his return, he became bishop of Myra and was later imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian. He was released after the access of Constantine and was present at the Council of Nicea. According to Western Christian tradition, Italian merchants took their body to Italy in 1087.
Nicholas was born in Asia Minor (Greek Anatolia in present day Turkey) in the Roman Empire, in a Greek family during the third century in the city of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia), a port in the Mediterranean Sea. He lived in Myra, Lycia (part of the current Demre), at a time when the region was Greek in its heritage, culture and perspectives, and politically part of the Roman Diocese of Asia.
In 325, he was one of the many bishops who responded to Constantine’s request and presented themselves at the First Council of Nicaea; Assistant 151 was included in the list as “Nicholas of Myra of Lycia”. There, Nicolás was a firm anti-Arian, defender of the Orthodox Christian position, and one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed. Tradition says he became so angry with the heretic Arius during the Council that he hit him in the face.
The modern city of Demre, Turkey, is built near the ruins of the ancient hometown of Myra, and attracts many Russian tourists, since St. Nicholas is a very popular Orthodox saint. The restoration of the original church of San Nicolás is currently underway, with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2007 allowing the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated on the site, and contributing 40,000 Turkish liras to the project.
A solemn bronze statue of the saint by Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky was donated by the Russian government in 2000, and was given a prominent place in the square in front of the medieval church of St. Nicholas. In 2005, Mayor Süleyman Topçu replaced the statue with a plastic statue of Santa Claus in a red suit, because he wanted a more recognizable image for foreign visitors. The protests of the Russian government against this were successful, and the bronze statue was returned (albeit without its original high pedestal) to a corner closer to the church.
On August 26, 1071, Roman IV, emperor of the Byzantine Empire (reigned between 1068 and 1071), faced Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks (who reigned between 1059 and 1072) at the Battle of Manzikert. The battle ended in humiliating defeat and capture for Romanus. As a result, the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turkish invaders. The Byzantines would regain control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (who reigned between 1081 and 1118). But at the beginning of his reign, Myra was overtaken by the Turks. The tomb of Nicholas in Myra had become a popular place of pilgrimage. Due to the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the grave would become difficult.
For the religious and commercial advantages of an important place of pilgrimage, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari competed to obtain the relics of Nicolás. Taking advantage of the confusion, in the spring of 1087, the sailors of Bari in Apulia seized part of the remains of the saint of his funeral church in Myra, despite the objections of the Greek Orthodox monks. When they returned to Bari, they brought the remains with them and worried about them. The remains arrived on May 9, 1087. There are numerous variations of this account. In some versions those who take the relics are characterized as thieves or pirates, in others it is said that they took them in response to a vision in which St. Nicholas appeared and ordered their relics to move to preserve them from the imminent Muslim conquest. . Currently in Bari, there are two churches in its sanctuary, one Catholic and one Orthodox.
The Bari sailors collected only half of Nicholas’s skeleton, leaving all the smaller fragments in the tomb. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and taken to Venice, where a church to San Nicolás, the patron saint of sailors, was built on the Lido. This tradition was confirmed in two scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton. Many churches in Europe, Russia and the United States claim to possess small relics, such as a tooth or a finger.
It is said that in Myra the relics of St. Nicholas each year exuded a clear and watery liquid that smells like rosewater, called manna (or myrrh), which the faithful believe has miraculous powers. After the relics were taken to Bari, they continued to do so, much to the joy of the new owners. The myrrh blisters of his relics have been taken by all over the world for centuries, and can still be obtained from his church in Bari. Even to this day, the clergy of the basilica extracts a bottle of manna from the tomb of St. Nicholas every year on December 6 (day of the saint’s feast). Myrrh is collected from a sarcophagus found in the vault of the basilica and can be obtained at the nearby store. The liquid gradually comes out of the tomb, but it is not clear whether it originates in the body inside the tomb or in the marble itself; since the city of Bari is a port, and the tomb is below sea level, several natural explanations for mana fluid have been proposed, including the transfer of seawater to the tomb by capillary action.
In 1993, a tomb was found on the small Turkish island of Gemile, east of Rhodes, which according to historians is the original tomb of Saint Nicholas. On December 28, 2009, the Turkish government announced that it would formally request the return of the skeletal remains of San Nicolás to Turkey from the Italian government. The Turkish authorities have affirmed that San Nicolás himself wanted to be buried in his episcopal city, and that his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.
An Irish tradition states that the relics of St. Nicholas were also allegedly stolen from Myra by Norman knights crossed in the 12th century and buried near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, where a stone slab marks the site that is believed to be his tomb. This is not widely accepted beyond the local tradition.
In 2017, an archaeological study in the Church of San Nicolás, it was reported that Demre found a temple beneath the modern church, with excavation works that will allow researchers to determine if he still has the body of Nicolás.
Face of the historical saint.
While the devotional importance of the relics and the economy associated with the pilgrimages caused the remains of most of the saints to be divided and disseminated by numerous churches in several countries, St. Nicholas is unusual because most of his bones have been preserved in only one place: his crypt tomb in Bari. Even with the supposedly continuous miracle of manna, the archdiocese of Bari has allowed a scientific study of the bones. At the end of the 1950s, during the restoration of the chapel, it allowed a team of scientists selected by hand to photograph and measure the contents of the tomb of the crypt.
In the summer of 2005, the report of these measurements was sent to a forensic laboratory in England. The review of the data revealed that the historic San Nicolás was 5’6 “tall and had a broken nose.The facial reconstruction was performed by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson at the University of Manchester and was shown on a television program of the BBC2 The Real Face of Santa.
Veneration and celebrations.
Between the Greeks and the Italians it is a favorite of sailors, fishermen, boats and navigation. As such, it has become over time the patron saint of several cities that maintain ports. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as “The Lord of the Sea,” often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily one of the most recognizable saints and on December 6 he finds many cities that celebrate his patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all Greece and particularly of the Hellenic Navy.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the memory of St. Nicholas is celebrated almost every Thursday of the year (together with the Apostles) with special hymns for him that are found in the liturgical book known as the Octoechos. Shortly after the transfer of the relics of St. Nicholas from Myra to Bari, a Russian version of his Life and a story of the transfer of his relics were written by a contemporary of this event. The priests and the devotional songs have been composed in his honor, and often the faithful sing to him while they ask for his intercession. He is mentioned in the Liturgy of Preparation during the Divine Liturgy (Eastern Orthodox Eucharist) and during the All Night Vigil. Many Orthodox churches will have their icon, even if they do not bear their name. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Coptic Church observes the departure of St. Nicholas in 10 Kiahk, or 10 Taḫśaś in Ethiopia, which corresponds to the Julian calendar of December 6 and the Gregorian calendar of December 19.
Nicholas had a reputation for giving gifts in secret, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them for him, a practice held at his party on December 6. For those who still observe the Julian calendar, the celebration will now take place thirteen days later than what happens in the Gregorian calendar and in the revised Julian calendar.
Saint Nicholas became the model of Santa Claus, whose modern American name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, himself a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos”. When the Dutch originally came to America and established the colony of New Amsterdam, they brought with them the legend and traditions of Sinterklaas. The New Amsterdam Dutch then shortened “Sinterklaas” to “Santa Claus”.
In late medieval England, the celebrations of the “bishop boy” of the Christmas party were celebrated in the parishes of St. Nicholas Day. As part of this celebration, the young people served as priests and bishops, and exercised government over their elders. Today, San Nicolás is still celebrated as a great gift in several countries of Western Europe and Central Europe. According to one source, in medieval times the nuns used the night of December 6 to deposit baskets of food and clothing anonymously at the doorstep of the needy. According to another source, on December 6, every sailor or former sailor of the Netherlands (who at that time was practically the entire male population) would descend to the port cities to participate in a celebration of the church of their patron saint. On the way back they stopped at one of Nicholas’ several fairs to buy some hard-to-find products, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some small gifts for their children. While the royal gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the gifts for the children were delivered immediately, courtesy of San Nicolás. This and his miracle of having resurrected the three massacred children made St. Nicholas a patron saint of children and also of later students.
In Albania, the bones of the greatest hero of Albania, George Kastrioti, were buried in the church of St. Nicholas in Lezha, Albania, after his death.
St. Nicholas is a popular theme portrayed in innumerable Eastern Orthodox icons, particularly the Russians. He is represented as an Orthodox bishop, carrying the omophorion and holding a Gospel Book. Sometimes he is depicted with the Eastern Orthodox miter, sometimes with his head uncovered. Iconographically, Nicholas is depicted as an old man with a short, full, white, fluffy, bald beard. In commemoration of the miracle attributed to him by tradition at the Council of Nicea, he is sometimes depicted with Christ on his left shoulder, holding a Gospel Book and the Theotokos on his right shoulder holding the omophorion. Due to his patronage of sailors, San Nicolás will occasionally be shown standing on a boat or rescuing drowning sailors; Medieval Cantos and Polyphony, image on the cover of the Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry, 1410.
In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is represented as a bishop, who bears the insignia of this dignity: the vestments of a bishop, a miter and a staff. The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand three wallets, three coins or three gold balls. Depending on whether he is represented as a patron of children or sailors, his images will be completed with a background showing boats, children or three figures emerging from a wooden barrel (the three sacrificed children he resurrected). In medieval paintings, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a dark-skinned man, like Saint Nicholas of Bari by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio, a 1430 painting made at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Altarpiece 1461 by Francesco di Giorgio and di Lorenzo with the Annunciation made for the church of Spedaletta.
In a strange twist, the three gold balls that refer to the matter of the dowry are sometimes interpreted metaphorically as oranges or other fruits. As in the Netherlands in medieval times the oranges came more frequently from Spain, this led to the belief that the Saint lives in Spain and comes to visit every winter bringing oranges, other “winter” fruits and tales of magical creatures .
San Nicola di Bari, an oratory composed by Giovanni Bononcini (1693).
St. Nicolas, a choral song for male choir by Edward Purcell (1730).
San Nicolás, a Christmas cantata by Benjamin Britten (1948).
San Nicolás (Miklavž prihaja) arrives, a Christmas operetta in three acts by the Salesian priest Jerko Gržinčič. The premiere took place before the Second World War at the Union Hostel in Ljubljana (now in Slovenia) with great success.