Who was St Nicholas?

After we found out that Santa Claus is not really St Nicholas, who was St Nicholas and why was he wearing a dress and that strange kind of cane?

First I’d like to mention that the church in Austria warns every year about St Nicholas being not suited as an instrument of punishment. He is a good saint.

The legendary Nicholas consists of 2 different bishops that lived in Lycia in Asia Minor: bishop Nicholas of Myra, who was born between 280 and 286 in Patara and died between 345 and 351, and the abbot of Sion, who was later bishop of Pinora and died on December the 10th 564.

antike Orte in Lykien, gezeichnet von Gunthram, Gnu fD Lizenz

ancient places in Lycia, drawn by Gunthram, Gnu fD Licence

Lycia is the old greek name for a part of the modern Turkey, Anatolia, Asia Minor. The city Myra is called Demre today. Nicholas’ broken, empty sarcophagus (v.i.) in the rebuilt church of Demre is venerated nowadays mostly by pilgrims of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Patara was an ancient city at the Lycian Mediterranean coast. Nowadays only ruins are left.

das kleine Theater in Patara, Bild von hauseltr, uneingeschränktes Nutzungsrecht

small amphitheatre in Patara, Foto by hauseltr, Public Domain

The ancient sources for the information about Nicholas are Andrew of Crete and Eustratios of Constantinople, AD 583, but there is no contemporary biography.

Nicholas was ordained by his uncle the bishop Nicholas of Myra, at the age of 19 and apllied as abbot of Sion near his hometown. He stole money of his parents to rescue two young women in his neighbourhood from prostitution. He threw the money through their windows in socks hanging at the fireplace to dry.
I checked it, because I am such a sceptic, it’s true that people were wearing socks at that time in that area.

After the death of his uncle Nicholas pilgrimaged to Palestine. When he came back he was elected bishop.

Nicholas was known for his agressive behaviour and choleric temper, he destroyed temples of the goddess Diana/Artemis which was worshipped in the towns at the lycian coast as patron of the seafarers.
Thus it is no wonder that he was captured in the time of persecution of Christians (310). He was tortured but survived.

He took part in the Nicene Council 325. It is said that he was fighting there against the doctrine of arianism ; legend has it that he slapped Arius during the council and went for a short time to jail for that. It is also said that he was arguing about the doctrine with his friend bishop Theognis of Nicene. Theognis finally signed the dogma of trinity. It is not known if Nicholas signed because the sources are not complete.

Arianismus is nothing evil and has nothing to do with Aryans. Arius, was a wellknown early representative of arianism. According to the arianistic doctrine God was only one person, and not three. The “Word” (equivalent to Holy Spirit) and Jesus existed in that doctrine too, but not as parts of God.
If the sources are right Nicholas adhered the doctrine of trinity. Most christians believe in the trinity nowadays, reason might be that arianists were burned after that council of Nicene, e.g. bishop Markell of Ankyra (336). Arius himself died 336 too:

Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died.

Believers of the trinity doctrine said that God killed him, other sources claim that he was poisoned.

The cult about Nicholas started around 200 years after his death, emperor Justinian consecrated him a church in Constantinople in the 6th century. Through the byzantine tradition he became one of the most worshipped saints of Russia.
Nicholas became one of the most popular saints, with lots of legends about his life and deeds, that illustrated his charitable and helpful manner.

In April 1087 his mortal remains were stolen by italian adventurers. They brought the bones to Bari where they built the basilica St Nicola. The pope Urban II. sanctified the basilica 1098.
That’s how the christians are, they steal the mortal remains of their saints from each others and act as if that was a sign of respect, while it’s a sign of efficient enterprising. Pilgrimages are a good source of money.
Because of this desecration the Roman Catholic Chruch calls Nicholas also “Nicholas of Bari”.

Grab Nikolaus in Demre, Foto von Sjoehest, Gnu fD Lizenz

empty sarcophagus of Nicholas in Demre, photo: Sjoehest, Gnu fD Licence

He was canonized, I couldn’t find out when, but it pre-dates the 1054 schism between the Eastern and Western churches. His commemoration day is December the 6th (except in the armenian church).

He is known as one of the saints of charity and patron of: Russia, Lothringia; Amsterdam, Fribourg in Swiss, Meran, Ancona, Bari, Trani in Apulia and New York; Sinti and Roma; of children, students, girls, virgins, women that want babies, parturients and old people, ministrants, firefighters, pilgrims and travellers, sailors, mariners, fishermen, rafters, shipbuilders and ferrymen; prisoners, thieves and criminals, owners and beggars, merchants, bankers, pawnbrokers; Judges, lawyers, pharmacists, farmers, bakers, millers, butchers, brewers, innkeepers,coopers, tailors, weavers,bridge-builders, masons, quarrymen, chandlers; for properous marriage and recovery of stolen items; against distress at sea and stealing.
No idea how he helps thieves and prevents stealing but I got to admit he seems to be a very busy saint.

Conclusion: He wears a dress and that cane because he was a bishop, capped and gowned.

Madonna on a throne, St Nicholas (the guy with the cane) and St Ursus (the guy in armor), by Hans Holbein d. J., Gnu fD Licence

Madonna on a throne, St Nicholas (the guy with the cane) and St Ursus (the guy in armor), by Hans Holbein d. J., Gnu fD Licence

I found the website stnicholascenter very informatory.

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