Searching for the real Saint Nicholas presents the usual problems. Historians in the age of the saints were not interested in removing certain doubtful accretions from their hagiographic accounts. It is very difficult, if not impossible, at this remove to separate the historical wheat from the chaff in the legends of old Saint Nick; and doing so would be inadvisable – because legends also affect history; in fact, the legend may have a more profound effect on events than what we moderns call historical facts.
It does not help that the legend and hagiography of Saint Nicholas of Myra (4th century) is in some measure intermingled with the life of Nicholas of Pharroa, monk of Sion and Bishop of Pinara (6th century).
Church records in the 6th century were more complete than those of earlier centuries because the Christian church only began to flourish after a long period of severe persecution had ended. Nicholas of Myra (in present day Turkey) is a saint of the persecuted church, a time in which Christian saints witnessed to the truth with their blood, sweat and tears.
Although there were more churches and monasteries during Nicholas of Sion’s time -- and therefore a greater accrual of detailed chronology – the personality that emerges from these accounts is far less powerful than that of the earlier Saint Nicholas of Myra, already known and venerated during Nicholas of Sion’s time. In fact, many of the elements of Christian hagiography properly attributed to Nicholas of Sion -- such as having Christian parents, being an only child, suckling only once a day on Wednesdays and Fridays, receiving a Christian education and charity towards the poor, all common elements of saints' lives -- were transferred backwards during the 9th and 10th centuries to Nicholas of Myra.
Modern historians, in discounting the power of legend while in pursuit of the “real” Saint Nicholas of history, by-pass an important creative element of history itself – the very real and historical effects produced by historically questionable fabulist elements.
There are roughly 15,000 books written about Abe Lincoln. Authors who have written about Lincoln, called by Henry Mencken “the solar myth of American history,” no doubt were faithful to historical fact. But the authors wrote their books and film makers made their films not because they were captivated by facts, but rather because they were drawn into the orbit of a commanding personality that transcended the facts to which they were, we hope, faithful. Such was the personality of Nicholas of Myra.
The Saint Nicholas of history – and history will forever include fabulist elements – is the (ITALICS) venerated (END ITALICS) saint of the Christian Church. By the 9th and 10th centuries, the hagiography of Nicholas of Myra was fully formed.
St. Nick was what we might be called a man of the people; indeed, a bishop of the people. Legend has it that he was made bishop almost by accident. In the 6th century, bishops were chosen by convocation of bishops, later by the pope of the Christian Church. One of the bishops gathered to choose a bishop for Myra in the 4th century had a dream the night before the convocation in which an angel had told him that the first person entering the church door on the day of the convocation who was named Nicholas was to be chosen bishop of the see vacated by a recently deceased bishop. Nicholas of Myra entered first. Replying to the question “What is your name?” he answered “Nicholas of Myra” and was so chosen, in accordance with heavenly instructions.
Nicholas of Myra, a witness to the truth during a period when the emperors of Rome were ruthlessly persecuting Christians, was a bishop of the suffering church. In 325, near the end of the persecutions, he answered the call of Constantine and appeared at the council of Nicaea to rebut the Arian heresy, which held that Christ was a created being, not fully God. Legend has it that so on fire was Nicholas in his defense of Christian orthodoxy that he slapped Arias in the face. However, modern scholarship tends to the view that Nicholas persuaded heretics with all the talents at his disposal, chiefly his superior intelligence and his virtue, a principal of right action among early Christians.
The saint’s most often remembered exploit involved three daughters whose father, a poor man, could not afford a proper dowry for them, which meant, in the absence of any other possible employment, they would be forced into prostitution. Too modest to offer public help and wishing to save the father the humiliation of accepting charity, Nicholas, under cover of night, threw three purses, each containing gold coins, through a window opening on the man’s house.
There are variations of the legend: In one, the purses are given out in three year periods just as each daughter comes of age; in another, the father, wishing to discover his benefactor, confronts the saint and is met with an avowal that he should not thank Nicholas but God, through whom all good things come; in another, wishing to escape the notice of the father, Nicholas drops the third purse down the chimney; and in another, Nicholas hides the coins in a stocking one of the girls has washed and hung over the embers to dry, an image we recreate in hanging of our Christmas stockings by the fireside.
Nicholas is venerated all over the world. Among Greeks and in Italy, he is the saint of Harbors. A Greek himself – indeed, the patron saint of Greece -- Nicholas appears in folklore as “The Lord of the Sea,” a Christianized version of Poiseidon. In iconography, an art that captures in its representations the religious essence of personality, Nicholas is without question the most recognized saint of the Christian Church. The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, which houses the largest collection of Russian icons in North America, has in its collection no fewer than 20 icons of the saint, one of which dates from 1525 and is shown above.
Within the Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas is specially venerated. In the liturgical weekly cycle of the church, only three persons – the mother of God, John the Forerunner and Saint Nicholas – are singled out by name. Léonide Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, in their magisterial The Meaning of Icons, tell us why. The church regards the saint, who left behind no theological works or other writings, as the personification of a shepherd, defender of the church 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.’”
A minister for all seasons, St. Nicholas is venerated in the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Baptist Church and other churches because in him was mixed in a vital way the very essence of the Christian ministerial spirit, and for this reason also he is a more powerful force for good in history than many historical persons about whose lives we know, or think we know, all the dead historical facts.
Nicholas was regarded as a saint by his contemporaries before he died, and his remains, his very bones, gave birth to miracles; so much so that he is called “The Wonderworker.” Over the years, his relics have been dispersed to his native Greece, Italy, Russia and – this will surprise some -- New York City.
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a modest four story structure nestled in the shadow of the World Trade Center Towers, was one of the repositories of a Saint Nicholas relic when on 9-11 it was destroyed in the terror attack by one of the falling Trade Center Towers, the remains of Saint Nicholas mingling with those of so many others who died that day. They will be in our prayers this Christmas as we eat our candy canes, a visible symbol of Saint Nicholas’ crozier, as we hang our stocking over the warm embers in our fireplaces, a remembrance of the saving kindness – more than a fable, so much more – of that day centuries ago when a father discovered the charity of Saint Nicholas in gold coins left in his daughters stockings. And we know – do we not? – that the relics of Nicholas now mixed with the dust of New York are yet this Christmas capable of saving what is best in us all.