'Αγιος Νικόλαος - Άη Νικόλας
(Saint Nicholas is the international name)
Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος , Agios Nikolaos, "victory of the people") is the common name for Saint Nicholas, a Lycian (Greek) saint and Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Antalya province, Turkey). He was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, but is now commonly identified with Santa Claus. Nicholas was never officially canonised; his legend simply evolved among the faithful. In 1087 his remains were abducted and removed to Bari in southern Italy, so that he is also Saint Nicholas of Bari. Among Orthodox Christians, the historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, children, and students in Greece, Belgium, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, the F.Y.R.O.M, Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro. He is also the patron saint of Barranquilla (Colombia), Bari (Italy), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Beit Jala in the West Bank of Palestine and Russia. In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and named Sancte Claus the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam, the Dutch name for New York. Thus, Saint Nicholas could also be considered as the patron saint of New York.
Nicholas was born in Asia Minor during the third century in the Greek colony of Patara in Lycia in the Roman province of Asia- today Antalya, Turkey - at a time when the region was Hellenistic in its culture and outlook. Nicholas became bishop of the city of Myra. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. According to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays, even when an infant, by abstaining on those days from his mother's breasts. Nicholas is said to have been born to relatively affluent Christian parents in Patara, Lycia, where he also received his early schooling.
As the patron saint also of sailors, Nicholas is claimed to have been a sailor or fisherman himself. More likely, however, is that one of his family businesses involved managing a fishing fleet. When his parents died, Nicholas received his inheritance but is said to have given it away to the poor. So was St Nicholas a working, albeit wealthy, man who complemented his day job with caring for his congregation, or was he a full-time bishop? The impressive list of deeds of Nicholas seems to point to the latter. This does not mean, however, that his appointment to priest or bishop meant a complete rupture with his former life. More likely this was a gradual process.
Nicholas's early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the persecution of Christians under the reign of co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian (reigned 284-305) and Maximian (reigned 286-305) In the Eastern Empire Galerius (reigned 305-311) continued the persecution until 311 when he issued a general edict of toleration from his deathbed. Nicholas survived this period, although his activities at the time are uncertain.
Following Galerius' death his surviving co-ruler Licinius (reigned 307-324) mostly tolerated Christians. As a result their community was allowed to further develop, and the various bishops who acted as their leaders managed to concentrate religious, social, and political influence as well as wealth in their hands. In many cases they acted as the heads of their respective cities. It is apparently in this period that Nicholas rose to become bishop of Myra. Judging from tradition, he was probably well loved and respected in his area, mostly as a result of his charitable activities. As with other bishops of the time, Nicholas's popularity would serve to ensure his position and influence during and after this period.
The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to him, among them the temple of Artemis. Because the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas's feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.
Not only was Nicholas intolerant of pagans, he was also intolerant of Arianism. Nicholas is listed as a participant in the First Council of Nicaea. There, according to legend, upon hearing the views of Arius, he became so angry that he rushed forward and struck him, sending him to the ground.
Nicholas is also known for coming to the defence of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his intercession on behalf of sailors and other travelers. The popular veneration of Nicholas as a saint seems to have started relatively early. Justinian I, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 527-565) is reported to have built a temple (i.e. a church building) in Nicholas's honour in Constantinople.
Abduction of his relics
On August 26, 1071 Romanus IV, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 1068-1071), faced Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks (reigned 1059-1072) in 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 invading Seljuk Turks. It would regain its control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081-1118). But early in his reign Myra was overtaken by the Islamic invaders. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari in Apulia seized the remains of the saint over the objections of the Orthodox monks. Returning to Bari, they brought the remains with them and cared for them. The remains arrived on May 9, 1087. Some observers have reported seeing myrrh exude from these relics. According to a local legend, some of these remains were brought via three pilgrims to a church in what is now Nikolausberg in the vicinity of the city of Gottingen, Germany, giving the church and village its name. There is also a Venetian legend (preserved in the Morosini Chronicle) that most of the remains were actually taken to Venice (where a great church to St Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido), only an arm being left at Bari. Local lore in Kilkenny, Ireland asserts that some of his remains were brought back from the Crusades by a local knight, and buried near Thomastown. He was known for leading the crusaders away from Lexmarkus in 1181.
The face of the historical saint
Whereas the importance of relics and the business associated with pilgrims and patron saints caused the remains of most saints to be spread over several churches in several countries, St Nicholas is unique in that most of his bones have been preserved in one spot: his grave crypt in Bari. Even with the still continuing miracle of the manna, the Roman Catholic Church has allowed for one scientific survey of the bones. In the late 1950s, during a restoration of the chapel, it allowed a team of hand-picked scientists to photograph and measure the contents of the crypt grave.
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 historical St Nicholas was barely five feet in height (while not exactly small, still shorter than average, even for his time) and had a broken nose.
Deeds and miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and is often called upon by sailors who are in danger of drowning or being shipwrecked; in Germany survivors of shipwrecks traditionally brought patches of sailcloth to Nicholas as votive objects. According to one legend, as a young man Nicholas went to study in Alexandria and on one of his sea voyages from Myra to Alexandria he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship's rigging in a storm. In a colourful version of this legend, Nicholas saved the man on his voyage back from Alexandria to Myra and upon his arrival took the sailor to the church. At that time the old bishop had just died and the church fathers were instructed in a dream to choose for their next bishop a "man who conquers" (Greek: nikei). While the saint was praying, the loose-lipped sailor went around telling how courageously he was saved by the man Nikei-Laos, upon which the church elders had no choice but to appoint Nicholas as their new bishop.
Another legend tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, and killed and slaughtered them and put their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also managed to resurrect the three boys from the barrel. Another version of this story, possibly formed around the eleventh century, claims that they were instead three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them, and was advised by his wife to dispose of them by turning them into meat pies. The Saint saw through this and brought the men back to life. This alternative version is thought to be the origin of the English horror legend of Sweeney Todd.
In his most famous exploit however, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him but being too modest (or too shy) to help the man in public, (or knowing the man too proud to accept charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window opening onto the man's floor. One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". Invariably the third time the father lies in waiting, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking. For his help to the poor, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop symbolize the three sacks of gold. People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.
A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is also considered a time of exchanging gifts.
It is said that in Myra the bones of Saint Nicholas each year sweated out a clear watery liquid, called manna, which of course was said to possess immense powers. As the bones were stolen and brought to Bari, they continued to do so, much to the joy of the new owners. So even up to today, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6th (the Saint's feast day). It is however worth noting that the tomb lies at sea level in a harbor town so the occurrence of watery liquid can be explained by several theories. However, this does not stop many believers from holding to it being manna.
One unusual aspect of Saint Nicholas' life is that he lived to an old age and died peacefully in his own bed. At a time when most saints died for their faith in manners most unusual and cruel, this made him stand out, together with Saint Martin, who also died of old age.
Formal veneration of the saint
Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favourite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbours. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea", often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianised version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognisable saints and December 6 finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all of Greece.
In the Middle Ages, both Saint Nicholas and Martin of Tours were celebrated as true people's saints. Many churches were named for them and later gave their names to the villages that emerged around them. As described above, while most contemporary saints earned their place in heaven by dying for their faith in manners most unusual and cruel, both Nicholas and Martin lived peacefully to a ripe old age. At a time of Religious wars and Crusades the idea that one could go to heaven, even become a saint, just by the way one lived instead of the way one died must have offered a great deal of consolation for the Medieval common folk. Therefore this time made Saint Nicholas a 'popular' saint in every sense of the word, more than all his miracles combined.
Sinter Claes in Dam (Amsterdam)In late medieval England, on Saint Nicholas' Day parishes held Yuletide "boy bishop" celebrations. As part of this celebration, youths performed the functions of priests and bishops, and exercised rule over their elders. Today, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European countries. According to one source, medieval nuns used the night of December 6th to anonymously deposit baskets of food and clothes at the doorsteps of the needy. According to another source, on December 6th every sailor or ex-sailor of the Low Countries (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbour towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy some hard-to-come-by goods, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas. This and his miracle of him resurrecting the three butchered children, made Saint Nicholas a patron saint of children and later students as well.
Due to the modern association with Christmas, Saint Nicholas is a patron saint of Christmas, as well as pawnbrokers (see above). He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Eastern Roman Emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.
The holy person of St. Nicholas is a popular subject portrayed on countless Eastern Orthodox icons, particularly Russian ones. (So beloved is St. Nicholas by Russians, one commonly heard saying is "if God dies, at least we'll still have St. Nicholas.")
In Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing the insignia of this profession: a red bishop's cloak, a red miter and a bishop's staff (crozier). The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three golden balls. Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images will be completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (the three slaughtered children he resurrected).
In a strange twist, the three golden balls referring to the dowry affair are sometimes misinterpreted as being oranges or other fruits. As in the Low Countries oranges are generally believed to come from Spain, this led to the belief that the Saint lives in Spain and comes to visit every winter bringing oranges and other 'wintery' fruits.
Saint Nicholas the festive gift-giver
Saint Nicholas Day is a festival for children in much of Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American Santa Claus, as well as the Anglo-Canadian and British Father Christmas, derive from these legends. "Santa Claus" is itself derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas.
Some elements of this part of the Saint Nicholas tradition can be traced back to the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). The appearance is similar to some portrayals of this god. In the Saint Nicholas tradition in the Netherlands and Flanders (Northern Belgium), he rides a horse over the rooftops, and this may be derived from Odin's riding through the sky. Also, his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten ('Black Petes'), may be a remnant of the twin ravens that accompanied Wodan.
The history of the festive Saint Nicholas celebration is complex and reflects conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a canonised saint, Martin Luther replaced the festival that had become associated with the Papacy with a Christkind ("Christ child") celebration on Christmas Eve. The Nicholas celebrations still remain a part of tradition among many Protestants, albeit on a much smaller scale than Christmas. The Protestant Netherlands, however, retain a much larger Saint Nicholas tradition. Many Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted Luther's Christkind.
Hellas - Greece
The name Agios Nikolaos means Saint Nicholas, and its stress lies on the third syllable of the word "Nikolaos". Agios Nikolaos or Ayios Nikolaos (alternative transliterations of the Greek Άγιος Νικόλαος) is observably a common placename in Greece and Cyprus, since Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and of all of Greece.
Celebration in Italy
St. Nicholas (San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari, where he is buried. Its deeply felt celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola, held on the 7-8-9 of May. In particular on 8 May the relics of the saint are carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare). On December 6 there is a ritual called the Rito delle nubili. The same tradition is currently observed in Sassari, where during the day of Saint Nicholas, patron of the city, some gifts are given to young brides who need help before getting married.
In Trieste St. Nicholas (San Nicolo) is celebrated with gifts given to children on the morning of the 6th of December and with a fair called Fiera di San Nicolo during the first weeks of December. Depending on the cultural background, in some families this celebration is more important than Christmas. Trieste is a city on the sea (sailors) that was one of the main ports of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and has mainly Italian, Slovenian and German culture but also Greek and Serbian.
Celebration in Lebanon
Saint Nicholas is celebrated by all the Christian communities in Lebanon: Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian. Many places, churches, convents, and schools are named in honor of Saint Nicholas, such as Escalier Saint-Nicolas des Arts, Saint Nicolas Garden, and Saint Nicolas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Achrafieh.
Celebration in Palestine
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of the town of Beit Jala. This little town, which is located only two kilometers to the west of Bethlehem, boasts of being the place where St. Nicholas spent four years of his life during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Every year on the 19th of December according to the Gregorian calendar - that is the 6th of December according to the Julian calendar- a great mass is held in the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, and is usually followed by parades, exhibitions, and many activities. Arab Palestinian Christians of all denominations and churches come to Beit Jala and participate in prayers and celebrations.
Celebration in Central Europe
In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot, called Nikolaus-Stiefel, outside the front door on the night of December 5 to December 6. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good. If they were not, they will have a tree branch ("Rute") in their boots instead. Sometimes a disguised Nikolaus also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they "have been good" (sometimes ostensibly checking a book for their record), handing out presents on a per-behaviour basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.
But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat, or sometimes actually eat the children for misbehaviour. Knecht Ruprecht furthermore was equipped with goatlegs. In Switzerland, where he is called Schmutzli, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the Black Forest. In other accounts he would throw the sack into the river, drowning the naughty children. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries such as Austria or Bavaria.
In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behaviour and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten to beat them with a rod. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, who local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them, even occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampuslaufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Mikulas is often also accompanied by an angel(andel) who acts as a counterweight to the ominous devil or Knecht Ruprecht (cert).
In Slovenia Saint Nikolaus (Miklavz) is accompanied by an angel and a devil (parkelj) corresponding Austrian Krampus. In Luxembourg "Kleeschen" is accompanied by the "Houseker" a frightening helper wearing a brown monk's habit.
In Croatia Nikolaus (Sveti Nikola) who visits on Saint Nicholas day (Nikolinje) brings gifts to children commending them for their good behaviour over the past year and exhorting them to continue in the same manner in the year to come. If they fail to do so they will receive a visit from Krampus who traditionally leaves a rod, an instrument their parents will use to discipline them.
In Hungary and Romania children typically leave their boots on the windowsill on the evening of December 5. By next morning Nikolaus (Szent Miklos traditionally but more commonly known as Mikulas) in Hungary or Mos Nicolae (Sfantul Nicolae) in Romania leaves candy and gifts if they have been good, or a rod (virgacs - Hungarian, nuielusa - Romanian) if they have been bad (most kids end up getting lots of candy but also a small rod). In Hungary he is often accompanied by the Krampusz, the frightening helper who is out to take away the bad ones.
Celebration in the United States
While feasts of Saint Nicholas are not observed nationally, cities with strong German influences like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis celebrate St. Nick's Day on a scale similar to the German custom. On the previous night, children put one empty shoe (or sock) outside, and, on the following morning of December 6, the children awake to find that St. Nick has filled their previously empty footwear with candy and small presents (if the children have been "good") or ostensibly, coal (if not). For these children, the relationship between St. Nick and Santa Claus is not clearly defined, although St. Nick is usually explained to be a helper of Santa. The tradition of St. Nick's Day is firmly established in the Milwaukee community, with parents often continuing to observe the day with even their adult children.
Celebration in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' eve is the primary occasion for gift-giving, when his reputed birthday is celebrated. In this case, roles are reversed, though, in that Sinterklaas is the one who gives the presents.
In recent years, Christmas (along with Santa Claus) has been pushed by shopkeepers as another gift-giving festival, with some success, although, especially for young children, Saint Nicholas' eve is still much more important than Christmas.
In the days leading up to December 5 (starting when Saint Nicholas has arrived in The Netherlands by steamboat), young children put their shoes in front of the chimneys and sing special 'Sinterklaas-songs'. Often the shoe is filled with a carrot or some hay for the horse of St. Nicholas (called Amerigo). On the next morning they will find a small present in their shoe, ranging from a bag of chocolate coins to a bag of marbles or some other small toy. On the evening of December 5th, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child that has been good in the past year (in practice to all children). This is often done by placing a sack with presents outside the house or living room, after which a neighbour or parent bangs the door or window, pretending to be Sinterklaas' assistant. Another option is to hire or ask someone to dress up as Sinterklaas and deliver the presents personally. Sinterklaas wears a red bishop's dress including a red mitre, rides a white horse over the rooftops and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (black Petes).
In the past number of years, there has been a recurrent discussion about the politically incorrect nature of the Moorish helper. In particular Dutch citizens with backgrounds from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles feel offended by the Dutch slavery history connected to this emblem and regard the Zwarte Pieten to be racist.
Celebration in Belgium
Originally Sinterklaas or Sint-Nikolaas was only celebrated in Flanders and the Netherlands the way described above, but now he is celebrated in Wallonia in the same way ("Saint Nicolas" in French-speaking Wallonia). The celebrating of Saint-Nicholas is mostly the same as in the Netherlands, but in Belgium the children receive their presents on the 6th of December (though some regions also have the presents on the 5th). Children have to put their shoes with carrots and sugar cubes, for St Nicholas's donkey or horse) in them by the stove or fireplace the evening of the 5th of December and the next morning, they find their presents. This tradition is still alive in the Catholic south of The Netherlands.
Celebration in France
In France, Saint Nicolas is celebrated this way in the eastern part of the country (Alsace, Lorraine regions) and less strongly in the northern part of the country (Nord departement). He is accompanied by "Pere Fouettard", carrying a bunch of sticks with which naughty children are beaten.
Celebration in Portugal
In Portugal, St. Nicholas (Sao Nicolau) has been celebrated since the Middle Ages in Guimaraes as the patron saint of high-school students, in the so called Nicolinas, a group of festivities that occur from November 29th to December 7th each year.
Benjamin Britten cantata
Benjamin Britten wrote a Christmas cantata commissioned by three public schools. This tells the story of Saint Nicholas and his Christian exploits. This is for small orchestra, three choirs, a tenor soloist (St. Nicholas), and a treble (young Saint Nicholas).
Metamorphosis in Demre
The metamorphosis of Saint Nicolas into the commercially more interesting Santa Claus, which took several centuries in Europe and America, has recently been re-enacted in the Saint's home town, the city of Demre. This modern Turkish town is built near the ruins of ancient Myra. As St. Nicholas is a very popular Orthodox saint, the city attracts many Russian tourists. A solemn bronze statue of the Saint by the Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, donated by the Russian government in 2000, was given a prominent place on the square in front of the medieval church of St. Nicholas. In 2005, mayor Suleyman Topcu had the statue replaced by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus statue, because he wanted the central statue to be more recognizable to visitors from all over the world. Protests from the Russian government against this action were successful only to the extent that the Russian statue was returned, without its original high pedestal, to a corner near the church.
Metamorphosis in Demre (Antalya-Turkie)