St Nicholas, the Christmas saint for all seasons

Who was the real St Nicholas?

Nowadays this season of the year seems to be overwhelmed by the figure of ‘Father Christmas’, a character who owes more to American commercial art than to true European tradition.

And yet behind the jolly, red-coated, rolly-polly there does indeed lie centuries of true Christmas tradition, going back to the very earliest centuries of Christianity.

Across Europe these traditions were centred on the figure of St Nicholas, an early saint of the Church. Yet when we look into these traditions we find that all across Europe St Nicholas was not just a saint for Christmas, but a saint for all seasons.

But first: what do we know about the real St Nicolas of history?

St Nicolas was a saint associated with Myra in Asia Minor and with Bari in the south of Italy. But he also had devotees all over Europe, and indeed all over the world where Christianity has taken root or has had some influence.

St Nicholas

Nicholas was born in a Greek community in Asia Minor during the  third century in the city of Patara, which was an ancient port on the south west coast  Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey. He later lived at  Lycia (now near the modern town of  Demre). 

At this time Asia Minor was part of the Greek world, in its heritage, culture, and outlook. By this time however it was also of the Roman Empire, which evolved into Byzantium.

Nicholas was the only son of wealthy Christian parents. Even from the beginning folklore and hearsay was playing havoc with his true history.

He was very religious from an early age. According to the ever developing legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays, which in the Orthodox tradition can be very severe.

His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. He was raised to manhood by his uncle—also named Nicholas—who was providentially the Bishop of Patara. He  tonsured the young Nicholas as a  reader and later ordained him a priest.

In 325 AD, Nicholas was one of many bishops to answer the request of the Emperor  Constantine and appeared at the first ever Ecumenical Council of the Church at Niceae.

At the council, Nicolas was a staunch anti – Arian and defender of the Orthodox Christian position, and one of the bishops who signed the  Nicene Creed when it was promulgated as a formula of the Christian faith.

The legend

So much then for the influential churchman of history. But there is another Nicholas too, the Nicholas of popular devotion around whom a cloud of tales was gathering thickly. 

One legend tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham.

St Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only detected the butcher’s terrible crime, but also, through invoking the power of Christ, brought the three boys alive from the barrel by his prayers.

In his most famous exploit, 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 girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each girl) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.

Another version of the tale existed, but in all of them the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor.

In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone.

In another version, St 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.

One can see here at once the connection with our current traditions. The whole legend is an amalgam of very ancient legends and folklore, Christian piety and local customs.

Historical basis

Are the legends true? A recent biography by an American scholar Dr Adam English based on intensive research over four years into whole gamut of legends surrounding Nicholas of Myra, thinks they have a basis in fact.

The legends with the most likely historical basis are the stories of Nicholas helping three girls and stories of Nicholas helping sailors. Others, especially the legend of the three murdered children, are much later additions to Nicholas lore.

During a great famine that Myra experienced in 311–312, a ship was in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor.

Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find: the weight of the load had not changed, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.

In August 1071 the Byzantine Emperor was defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. As a result the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor to the invading hordes from Central Asia. The Byzantines would regain its control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (between 1081–1118). But early in his reign Myra was captured by the Turks.

Nicholas’ tomb in Myra had by then become a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. For both the religious and commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari, a port in Apulia, vied to get the Nicholas relics.

Taking advantage of the confusion, in the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari seized part of the remains of the saint from his burial church in Myra, 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.

There are numerous variations of this account. In some versions those taking the relics are characterised as thieves or pirates, in others they are said to have taken them in response to a vision wherein St Nicholas himself appeared and commanded that his relics be moved in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest. Currently at Bari, there are two churches at his shrine, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox.

Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas’ skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and brought to Venice, where a church to St Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido. This tradition was confirmed in two scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton.

Bari was a commercial city, and it was after the installation there of the relics that the gift giving and wonderworking reputation of St Nicholas developed.

It is said that in Myra the relics of Saint Nicholas each year exuded a clear watery liquid which smells like rose water, called manna (or myrrh), which is believed by the faithful to possess miraculous powers.

After the relics were brought to Bari, they continued to do so, much to the joy of the new owners. Vials of myrrh from his relics have been taken all over the world for centuries, and can still be obtained from his church in Bari. Even up to the present day, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6 (the saint’s feast day) by the clergy of the basilica.

The myrrh is collected from a sarcophagus which is located in the basilica vault and could be obtained in the shop nearby. The liquid gradually seeps out of the tomb, but it is unclear whether it originates from the body within the tomb, or from the marble itself. As Bari is a harbour, and the tomb itself is below sea level, there are several suggested natural explanations for the eruption of the fluid, including the transfer of seawater into to the tomb by capillary action.

Some historians, however, see this raid on Myra in 1087 as the beginning of the crusading mentality. The First Crusade in 1097 by defeating the Turkish king Arslan won back a large part of Western Anatolia. But this was only a battle in a long war that still continues between Islam and Christendom.

The Nicholas of European popular tradition

Today St Nicholas is primarily associated with Christmas. But in European tradition St Nicholas has become many other things. He is the patron saint not just of the Russian people, but of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students in various cities and countries around Europe. The traditional three gold globes that hand over the doors of pawnbrokers are emblems of the three bags of gold which the saint gave to the three virgins.

As patron saint of thieves he was seen as encouraging their repentance, not their success at their trade. But it is more appropriate that he is seen also as the protector of children, making his a name which might be more invoked today in a different spirit of repentance by the Church.

Of the old traditions of Europe perhaps those of France are the most persistent, and those of rural Catholic among the most interesting. He is venerated there not only at Christmas, but also at Pentecost. St Nicholas is associated with the lives of the elderly, with young women in search of husband, and young men on the verge of marrying. Though at sea he was the patron of sailors, inland in France he is the patron of ferry keepers and those who work as log-rollers transporting the products of the mounts forests down to the towns by water. 

These only beliefs and customs are however now giving way before the more commercial norms of modern times.

The true meaning of St Nicholas

St Nicholas is a saint shared widely not just among the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions, but also by many Protestant who otherwise reject the idea of canonisation or the veneration of the saint, but respect the customs of faith and of charity.

So we should see St Nicholas not just as the jolly overseer of gift giving at Christmas, but a strong figure of charity, care, and comfort, especially of the lonely, the rejected and the wandering, for all times of the year.

It is only right that St Nicholas should be not only the patron of Christmas cheer, but also a patron all the year round. The events of the Nativity are essentially the story of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation for Christians is a mystery of faith to be celebrated throughout the year.

The gifts we give and get at Christmas, with which the over flowing sack of St Nicholas is associated, are only tokens of what for Christians is the far greater gift, the gift of eternal salvation. 


Material in this article has been drawn from the folklore study Saint Nicolas by Colette Mechin (in the series Espace des Hommes, published by Berger-Levrault, now out of print), and The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of St Nicholas of Myra, by Adam English (Baylor University Press, $24.95) published in 2012.

In December 1993, it was reported in the international press that a grave on the small Turkish island of Gemile, just to the east of Rhodes, had been identified as the original tomb of St Nicholas.

The traditional Turkish name for the island is Gemile Adasi, meaning ìIsland of Boatsî, St Nicholas being the patron saint of sailors. In the Middle Ages little the island was also referred to as St Nicholas Island by seafarers. 

It lies now just of the town of Fethiye, just along the coast from Myra and Patara. Rhodes lying close by is, of course, Greek territory.

Archaeologists believe the saint was interred in the rock hewn church following his death in 326. There the remains stayed until the 650s when the island was abandoned as it was threatened by the Seljuk and Muslim expansions. The remains were taken to the town of Myra some 25 miles (40 km) to the east.

Then at the close of December 2009, the Turkish government announced that it would be formally requesting the Italian government to the return of St Nicholasís skeletal remains. It has to be borne in mind that for the Turks, Italy was the local colonial power down to WWII and there is no love lost between the two nations.

Turkish authorities have asserted that St Nicholas himself desired to be buried at his episcopal town, and that his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.

So the remains of St Nicholas  have joined such things as the Elgin Marbles among the cultural items whose return is demand, making St Nicholas a patron of harmony and peace the object international conflict. But just as the British are unlikely to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, or the French the Mona Lisa to Italy, so it is unlikely that the modern Italians will be moved to return the bones of St Nicholas from Bari and Venice.

For the Turks this is no trivial matter. With the increased reluctance of many Europeans and Americans to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, other early Christian lands are being developed for tourism. Turkey, the Ancient Asia Minor is one of these, with the travels there of St Paul being of particular interest.

A shrine to the Christian saint of Christmas would be, from the point of view of the Turkish tourist authorities, be a big boon. So the conflicts of the crusades continue, albeit in a different form.