A friend was struggling. You could see it in his eyes and in his growing estrangement from his family and from church. I prayed for him, sensing he was headed for deep trouble. And since the need was so great and the crisis so near, I entrusted my friend to the care of St. Nicholas of Myra.
This bishop of the early church—the real person behind the figure of Jolly Old Saint Nick—might not strike you as an obvious choice when it comes to interceding for a desperate case. But Nicholas has long been the most beloved of the “wonderworker” saints honored by Eastern Christians.
Pretty much everything about Nicholas is a wonder. His legendary generosity and compassion for the poor. The miracles of healing and protection that he worked, sometimes from a distance. Even his bones are wondrous. Ever since his death in the fourth century, they have secreted a liquid that has been associated with many physical and spiritual healings.
Generous Giver. A certain mystery surrounds the life of Nicholas. This is because early biographers, wanting to emphasize his holiness, tended to embellish the facts and the stories people were telling about him. Historians agree, however, that Nicholas was born in the second half of the third century and that sometime in the next century, he became bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor (modern Demre, Turkey).
Myra and nearby Patara, which is considered Nicholas’ birthplace, were travel hubs in the Roman province of Lysia. Since St. Paul stopped at both (Acts 21:1-2; 27:5), I like to think that Nicholas might have been a descendant of his converts from two hundred years before.
Tradition has it that Nicholas was the only child of devout and wealthy parents, both of whom died when he was young. But unlike the rich young man of the gospels, it seems that his wealth didn’t keep him from following Jesus. From very early on, he was known as a generous giver, especially to those in need.
The biographies tell how Nicholas became a monk, visited the Holy Land, and was chosen bishop by divine intervention. Highlighting his devotion to Jesus, they recount his imprisonment and torture during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. Some sources mention a stormy encounter at the Council of Nicea (325), where Nicholas is said to have struck Arius for denying the divinity of Christ.
Ready and Able. The tone and quantity of the writings about Nicholas indicate that something about him touched people deeply. What was it?
The present Orthodox Bishop of Myra, Metropolitan Chrysostom, offers a convincing answer. Interviewed by author Jeremy Seals, he explained that Nicholas “lived his life among the people. He was not remote or detached. He helped them in their distress, whether they were poor or endangered, persecuted or hungry.”
Though he had not wanted to be a bishop, Nicholas accepted it as God’s call. He knew, too, that it required him to live no longer for himself but for the people entrusted to his care. As he worked at living out this ideal, Nicholas became a faithful friend and protector, making himself available to anyone who called on him.
Not only that: For most of his life, Nicholas exercised two very dramatic spiritual gifts: healing and “mighty deeds” (1 Corinthians 12:9-10). As God worked through Nicholas to save people in desperate straits, stories of miracles began to circulate. Some grew fanciful in the telling, but others preserve the memory of genuine incidents. They reveal why Nicholas became the much-loved protector of so many different groups—among them children, sailors, prisoners, travelers, and the poor.
Miracles of Mercy. One story tells how Nicholas, while sailing to the Holy Land, instantly calmed a violent storm that rose up around Cyprus. Through his prayers, God saved the crew and passengers from shipwreck and healed a sailor who had fallen from the mast.
Another story describes Bishop Nicholas hurrying to the scene of an execution and intervening to save three innocent people just as the sword was about to fall. It goes on to tell of three Roman officers who witnessed the event: When they, in turn, were falsely accused, they prayed to Nicholas, and he appeared in a dream to warn Emperor Constantine of the miscarriage of justice.
Nicholas was also known as a defender of children. There are many variations of an incident in which he solved a murder and brought the three young victims back to life. On another occasion, he rescued a peasant boy who had been kidnapped and taken to Crete.
The best-known incident concerns three young women whose father—too poor to support them or to supply the dowry they needed to marry—resolved to sell them into slavery, one by one. Alerted by God, Nicholas met the family’s need by tossing a bag of his own gold through their open window on three successive nights.
Everyone Knows Nicholas. The wonders didn’t cease after Nicholas died on December 6, around A.D. 345. Recognizing his holiness, people thronged to Myra to pray at his tomb. The sick were anointed with the liquid secreted by his bones (called manna), and many healings were reported. The wonders continued even after 1087, when sailors spirited away his relics to Bari, on the southeastern coast of Italy. That city, too, became a major pilgrimage destination.
Devotion to St. Nicholas spread like wildfire, reaching even to Russia. The Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian built a great church in his honor in Constantinople; many other churches followed. By the fifteenth century, Nicholas was the most popular non-biblical saint in the Christian world.
Throughout Europe, people remembered him on December 5, the eve of his feast, by making anonymous gifts of treats to needy children—a custom that recalled his generous heart.
Enter Santa. In the early nineteenth century, a quite different kind of wonder began to unfold in the city of New York. In a development that our ancestors in the faith would have found astonishing, holy Bishop Nicholas was repackaged as a fat, bearded elf in a red suit.
It began in 1809, when the New York Historical Society decided to promote St. Nicholas and to recapture the Christmas traditions of the city’s early Dutch settlers. Those settlers had not, in fact, continued their St. Nicholas traditions in the New World, but this lack was quickly met. That same year, writer Washington Irving published a satirical account of New York’s Dutch history. The spoof included descriptions of a jolly, pipe-smoking St. Nicholas who flew over treetops and slid down chimneys to deliver gifts. The fiction quickly became an urban legend.
In 1822 came the hugely popular poem by Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” This gave the bishop his furs, sleigh, and reindeer, along with a date change: “the night before Christmas.” Illustrators and commercial artists did the rest. By 1931, a hefty Santa Claus (from Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for St. Nicholas) was advertising Coca-Cola.
Today, the whole world recognizes Santa. By comparison, not many would recognize the face of St. Nicholas.
Wonders in Bari. But scientists have been working to discover the “real face of Santa.” The process began in the 1950s, when the Basilica of St. Nicholas, in Bari, was renovated. The saint’s bones were exhumed, and a Vatican commission was established to study them.
Anatomy professor Luigi Martino meticulously examined, measured, and X-rayed the bones in the casket. He determined that they all belonged to an older man who stood about five foot six, ate a mainly vegetarian diet, and had a broad forehead, rather large eyes, and somewhat prominent cheekbones. “The condition of certain bones suggested that he had done time in some damp jail,” wrote Dr. Martino. He concluded that his findings were consistent with the life of St. Nicholas.
More recently, Francesco Introna, a professor of forensic pathology, used the latest techniques to analyze the data on the skull. His findings revealed a Nicholas with a broken nose—perhaps another souvenir of imprisonment. Facial anthropologist Dr. Caroline Wilkinson then created a computerized, three-dimensional reconstruction of this head. Both this model and Dr. Martino’s sketches show similarities to traditional images of Nicholas handed down by iconographers.
The 1950s studies also included an examination of the manna. Scientists said the liquid was not easily explainable and determined that it did indeed come from the bones, not from an outside source. Recognized as an authentic relic, the manna is collected every May 9, which marks the “translation” of the bones from Myra to Bari. Orthodox and Catholic join together to celebrate the feast, making it an ecumenical event.
Everyone’s Saint. Clearly, St. Nicholas has a wide reach. Encompassing Catholics and Orthodox, he draws Christians of many other traditions as well—Anglicans, some Lutherans, and other mainline Protestants. Carol Myers, of the St. Nicholas Center in Holland, Michigan, observes that “among more Evangelical Protestants, too, there is some movement toward St. Nicholas as an antidote to a secularized Santa Claus.”
The Dominican friars who serve the Bari basilica also see St. Nicholas as an ecumenical networker. With so many Eastern Christians coming to the shrine, they pray and work especially for the restoration of full communion between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. To that end, they maintain an Orthodox chapel in the basilica, near Nicholas’ tomb. They also oversee an ecumenical institute that brings Orthodox and Catholics together in many ways.
God willing, I will visit Bari someday, and I will pray there for Christian unity. I will rub shoulders with its Orthodox and Eastern Catholic pilgrims, who turn to St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker daily, for needs great and small. And I will join them as they thank God for wonders worked through his intercession. I will thank him especially for the way he saved my friend—the struggling one who had lost sight of the truth and was making a mess of his life.
Exactly how God did it, I’ll never understand. All I know is that every Sunday, I stood before the icon of St. Nicholas, locking eyes with him as I prayed for God’s mercy. During those months, my friend began responding to grace. Gradually but unmistakably, he came alive in the Lord. Today, several years later, he’s a different person—joyful, full of faith, living for Jesus, and raising his children to do the same.
Sundays still find me at that icon of St. Nicholas, but now I’m praying for another needy situation. So many people could use a miracle! I expect that when I get to Bari, I’ll be thanking God—and his servant Nicholas—for a happy ending to many more stories.
Louise Perrotta is a former features editor for The Word Among Us.