In these early days of Advent, we celebrate one of the most popular of saints, of whom we actually don’t know all that much. That he was born in Myra – now in Turkey – where he was bishop most of his life seems certain; he is also called ‘of Bari’, a coastal city in southeastern Italy, just above the heel of the country’s boot, where his relics were taken in 1087 – a decade before the first Crusade – to save them from the marauding, iconoclastic and Turkish Muslims, who had a lamentable tendency to destroy every Christian shrine and relic they came across.
We may safely surmise that he was a holy and steadfast bishop, a reportedly staunch foe of Arianism, whose legendary charitable works – whatever their historical origins – signify a man of great soul, who has gone down in history, much more than the mythical red-nosed reindeer who guided his sled across the North Pole into the various antipodes.
The gift-giving has its origins in the story of Nicholas saving three young women, whose father had squandered their savings, leaving them in the sad fate, in that rather brutal age, of being sold into prostitution. The good bishop, in the dark of night, dropped three successive bags of gold through an open window – safer than the proverbial chimney – enough for each of their dowries. Hence, his historical morphing into chubby and cherubic gift-giving Santa Claus.
There are any number of other legends: of Nicholas giving the heretic Arius a good slap at the Council of Nicaea, perhaps to knock him back into orthodoxy; of Nicholas saving three innocent men from execution; of Nicholas resurrecting thee children who had been killed by a butcher during a famine, and who was going to sell them off disguised as ‘ham’ (and this rather macabre legend was one of the most popular in the Middle Ages, being depicted in all sorts of paintings and stained glass); of Nicholas saving the ship on which he was sailing to the Holy Land from certain destruction during a violent storm.
Hence, he is the patron saint of any number of things, children, the Dutch and of Holland – a nation once Catholic, now steeped in the culture of death, needing our prayers – sailors, coopers, archers and, one of my favourite, brew-masters.
And, of course, he is the saint we associate most, perhaps, with Christmas, besides the three holy persons in that manger on that Holy Night. A fitting saint to celebrate as we prepare ourselves during this Advent time.