St Nicholas the Wonderworker

Commemorated December 6

The true greatness of this beloved Saint is hidden in the shadows of legend, obscuring the identity of one of the most endearing of our saints.

Nothing is known of the early life of Nicholas, except that he was born at the turn of the fourth century, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, in Asia Minor and was a Bishop of Myra, in that area which is now Turkey. Of a quiet and and studious nature, he attended the Synod of Nicaea in A.D. 325. On that momentous occasion he was so withdrawn that he is not even mentioned in the account of the proceedings recorded by St. Athanasios the Great; however, his behind the scenes activity did add to the luster of this memorable convocation. His importance was recognised by the Emperor Justinian, who had a magnificent cathedral erected in his memory in Constantinople.

Prior to his elevation as Archbishop, Nicholas had suffered imprisonment, harsh treatment and torture at the hands of the enemies of the Church. It was not until the reign of the Christian Emperor Constantine that he was able to lead the normal and peaceful life of a prelate. His leadership in Myra, which did not offer very hospitable surroundings for the Christians of the day, was so effective that his fame and popularity gave rise to many legends that were well intended but served only to screen the true character of this very real and industrious saint who laboured for Christ all the years of his life, echoing the truth of Christianity uttered centuries before by the apostles.

So great was St. Nicholas' popularity that he became the symbol of protection of children, which led to many of the legends about him. After his death by natural causes at a venerable age, the legends and myths multiplied, but they only demonstrate how dearly loved he was for his great work. He became not only the patron saint of children, but also of merchants, sailors, and scholars, and was a protective symbol for travellers against highwaymen.

In a fascinating and daring enterprise in the late eleventh century, the residents of Bari, Italy, where Nicholas' popularity had grown with the years, hatched a plot to recover the remains of the saint from Turkey. Through guile and ruse they were able to outwit the unwary but dangerous natives of Asia Minor and succeeded in removing the body of Saint Nicholas and transporting it to Bari. There it was paraded in triumph through the streets before being properly enshrined on 9 May 1087, after which a magnificent basilica was erected in his honour.

from Orthodox Saints, v. 4,
by Fr George Poulos, Orthodox Press

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