St. Nicholas – the life, the legend

St. NicholasThe life and legend of St. Nicholas of Patara, Myra, Gemili and Bari; the model for Father Christmas and a Saint of the Eastern and Western Christian Churches. (The Orthodox and Latin Church).

A young man named Nicholas was born in Patara on the coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey), about 270 AD, of wealthy parents; perhaps corn merchants since it was such a big centre of the corn trade.  From an early age he seemed interested in Christianity and became devout and scholarly.  However Patara was an important city and port in the Roman Empire.  Emperor Diocletian, (who did not retire until 305 AD), ordered ‘The Great Persecution’ of all Christians.  Nicholas may well have suffered but when Constantine became emperor, he stopped the persecution and adopted Christianity for the whole empire, making himself ‘God’s Vicar on Earth’.

After Constantine’s Edict of Milan (314 AD) Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, near another port east of Patara (where Paul of Tarsus – St. Paul – changed boats on his way to Rome, almost three hundred years before.

Nicholas may have attended the Council of Nicea (325 AD) as one of the two hundred and twenty bishops sitting in conclave under Constantine.  However, it was as a miracle-worker that he came to be known and on which his cult was founded.  One of his miracles being the reported gift of three bags of gold, thrown over the wall to save three daughters of a poor man who could not afford dowries from the fate of prostitution.   Perhaps the origin of presents for children at Christmas.  There is a church at Myra that bears his name, although it is much later and was heavily and incorrectly restored in the 19th century.  This degree of restoration is unusual on the Turkish coast.

No doubt Nicholas travelled up and down the coast and in some way he became associated with the mysterious island which bore his name, San Nicolo (now known as Gemili).  This hilly island has extensive remains of a large early Christian community with churches, houses, two large necropoli (filled with tombs) and a lengthy commercial waterfront.  The location of the island forms a very safe haven from the westerly winds.

Indeed it is the only haven available for boats working North North West from Patara.  Sheltering sailors, who depended on sails, may well have progressed to the top of the island to give thanks for their life to Saint Nicholas, their  patron saint.  The top church shows signs of being able to handle pilgrims. It has remains of a white sarcophagus and four columns of a baldachino.  Although damaged in the 7th Century AD by the Arabs, it was possibly visited by Genoese traders in Mediaeval times and, maybe, crusaders also.  There is also a rare vaulted processional way probably built in Emperor Justinian’s time, leading from a collection of large ruined buildings at the lower eastern end of the island.  Was this the religious school mentioned in connection with St. Nicholas?

Nicholas’s bones, it is said, were removed from Myra in 1087, possibly by Genoese merchants, when the Saracens swept into Asia Minor in the eleventh century, and taken to Bari, Southern Italy where there was a Greek colony.  At Bari, on the coat of southern coast of Italy, a new church was built and dedicated to Nicholas.  Pope Urban II held a council there.  Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, attended and composed a prayer to Nicholas.  From then onwards he was known as St. Nicholas ‘la Latina’.  Thus he became a saint of the Western as well as the Eastern churches, revered in Greece and Russia and one of the most popular saints.

The name Nicholas was used from Anglo-Saxon times in England.  In the 14th Century, Westminster Abbey was rebuilt with four chapels laid out at the east end, attributing the one on the left of Jesus to St. Nicholas.   In 1492, when Christopher Columbus reached the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean and founded his capital, San Domingo, his Franciscan monks built and  dedicated the hospital to St. Nicholas.

There are said to be over 400 churches in England dedicated to St. Nicholas, mostly in Norfolk, Kent and Sussex.  In the 15th Century, King Henry VI designed the Royal College of St. Nicholas in Cambridge.   (The chapel which he presumably designed is now known as King’s College Chapel.)

The name Santa Claus came from a Dutch (Protestant) custom of presents at Christmas.  The Dutch took the custom to New Amsterdam which the British renamed New York and so on the famous figure in the Coca Cola advertisements of the ‘20’s

It is an extraordinary story, but Nicholas’s popularity is widespread and it all started on what is now the Turkish coast.