From Saint to Santa
This month our local historian Ruth E. Richardson tells a saintly and seasonal story.
If you were hungry and cold in Medieval England a basket of food and clothes was a wonderful gift. Nuns quietly delivered them during the night of 6th December, St. Nicholas' Feast Day. Bishop Nicholas was a practical person who followed Jesus' instructions that anything you do for others 'you do for me'. His gift-giving is still remembered. One story is about three girls whose father could not afford dowries for them. To us this does not seem so desperate but then it meant they could not marry and might have to become prostitutes. Nicholas anonymously gave each a purse of coins. The traditional orange in a Christmas stocking is said to represent this gold in each purse.
Nicholas, or Nikolaos, was Greek, born c.270AD in Patara, in the province of Lycia (in present– day Turkey). As his wealthy parents died when he was young, he was brought up by his uncle, a Christian Bishop. Although among those imprisoned for their faith, he became Bishop of Myra (now Demre) the Lycian port where St. Paul, changing ships, had preached. In 325 Nicholas seems to have attended the First Council of Nicaea which discussed Christian doctrine.
He was so liked and respected in his life–time that his reputation endured. His miracles have led to him being known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker. When he died he was buried in the basilica in Myra but in 1087 the city was seized by the Turks. Care of shrines was big business as pilgrims brought huge amounts of money in offerings. So, despite objections from the Orthodox monks, and perhaps to safe–guard them, Catholic sailors from Italy grabbed the larger of his bones, taking them to Bari where they have been ever since. In 1100 the rest of Nicholas was taken to Venice. As it is unusual for most of a Medieval Saint's skeleton to be intact, Nicholas' bones in Bari could be examined. In 2005 a forensic review of the 1950s investigation showed that Nicholas had been nearly five feet tall, about average height then, and had had a broken nose.
Churches throughout Europe are dedicated to him, including in Demre (Myra), which has Christian Services again. Herefordshire has Sutton St. Nicholas, Norton Canon and St. Nicholas Church in Hereford. The Cathedral's Boy Bishop ceremony is on 6th December.
It was sailors, using the ports of Myra and Bari, who spread his cult far and wide. German emigrants took his story to the USA, where he is the origin for Santa Claus, Father Christmas. St. Nicholas Fairs, selling small gifts, spread from the Netherlands to other countries. He is the patron saint of children, students, sailors, fishermen, merchants, pharmacists, coopers (barrel makers), archers, those falsely accused, repentant thieves, pawnbrokers and broadcasters. Children, and others, who find fruit, nuts, and gifts in Christmas stockings, or shoes, are meant to share these treats as Nicholas did with his wealth so long ago. Happy Christmas!
©Ruth E. Richardson 2013