Thursday, December 5, 2013

Who Was the Real St. Nicholas?

(Looking toward the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th)

What Did He Look Like?
 Well...  He didn't look like this:

Rather, he would have dressed like any other ecclesiastic of the fourth century, because that's what he really was -- the bishop (actually the archbishop) of Myra, in present-day Turkey.  At that time it was a Greek province of the Roman Empire*, though its customs and traditions would have leaned to eastern.  So, His Excellency would likely have worn a semblance of robes as were common in an eastern border country under Roman rule.

Which, actually, didn't look like this, either:

You see, when officiating, the garb of a bishop wouldn't have included a bishop's miter, as it's commonly believed that miters didn't begin to be worn until after the tenth century.  And, in fact, it's likely that his clerical vestments may not have differed at all from his street clothes, as this differentiation didn't start to occur until after the time of Constantine, well into the fourth century, and wasn't regularized throughout the Church until a couple centuries after the death of St. Nicholas.

Don't be mistaken, though, as iconography and symbolism are important ingredients of our Faith, it's logical and appropriate that St. Nicholas is almost always depicted wearing red -- as it's the traditional color of all bishops -- and that he's shown with the mitre and crozier of more modern times, as his office in the Church is a key part of his identity.

But what did he look like?  Interestingly, this is something we actually do know. St. Nicholas is one of the few ancient saints whose entire skeletal relics remain intact.  During a chapel restoration in the 1950s, the Archdiocese of Bari permitted a group of carefully chosen scientists to photograph and measure the bones of  St. Nicholas.  In doing so, they discovered that he was barely five feet tall and had a broken nose.  What is also fascinating, is that, by studying the skull and using modern forensic technology, scientists have reconstructed what the St. Nicholas would really have looked like in real life!  Go here to have a look!

What Did He Do?
The real St. Nicholas was a holy and well-loved Religious of the early Church, known for his courage and defense of the Faith during the persecutions of Diocletian.  He was imprisoned, in fact, for his Faith during the reign of Diocletian, and one wonders if it was during this time that he got the broken nose!  But, after the persecutions ended, the work didn't end for the early Church leaders.  St. Nicholas, in his see at Myra, was particularly called to erase the scourge of paganism  and brought about the destruction of many pagan temples in his diocese, most notably that of the Temple of Artemis in Lycia.

 He also attended the Council of Nicaea in 325  and for his staunch defense of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity earned the title of "Defender of Orthodoxy" which is still remembered (particularly in the Eastern Church). During the Nicaean Council, legend has it that St. Nicholas became so frustrated with the foolishness of the arguments against the Trinity, that during the debates, he flew across the room and actually slapped Arius, his chief opponent!  For this affront to the dignity of the council, St. Nicholas was put in prison to cool off, but in a miracle, he was freed of his chains by Christ, Himself, and clothed by the Blessed Mother in the omophorion, the stole that became the traditional garb of the eastern bishops.
The slap.  You can mess with
St. Nick, but don't mess with
the Holy Trinity!

But, aside from his ecclesiastical duties as a bishop and defender of the Faith, St Nicholas was known as a holy man, one especially likeable and warm-hearted.  As you might guess, he really was known for his devotion to the care of the poor, and the legend of his secret gifts to the needy appear to be perfectly true.  But, aside from his practical works of mercy, he was known, even in his day as a Wonder Worker;  many miracles are included in his biography, a large portion of which concern helping and protecting children.  He has earned for this reason the title of patron of children -- but it's more likely that when he brought gifts to needy children, it was in the way of food and warm clothing --  not toys or candy.

Where Did He Live?

St. Nicholas was born in 270 A.D., the son of wealthy parents in the Greek city of Patara, which was at that time a province of the Roman Empire. This area is now the southern coast of Turkey. When he was a young man, St. Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he stayed for a while, but upon returning, stopped in Myra (which is now the town of Demre), where he was elected Bishop.  He traveled in his duties, but remained bishop of the see of Myra for the rest of his life.

Why He is Sometimes Called St. Nicholas of Bari?

When St. Nicholas died on December 6th, in the year 343, his body was entombed in Myra, but in the early 11th century,  Muslims took over the town, and, in the confusion, sailors from Bari, Italy (against the wishes of the attending monks in Myra) removed the remains, taking them back with them to Bari, where St. Nicholas' relics remain to this day.   A beautiful basilica, the " Basilica di San Nicola" was completed to house the relics in the middle of the twelfth century, this becoming a great pilgrimage center in the Middle Ages.
 From the earliest days, miraculous oil or "manna" had exuded from the tomb and continued to do so after the relics' removal from Myra.The "Manna" (sometimes called "Myrrh") of St. Nicholas is reported to flow from the relics even to this day.

Is there Devotion to St. Nicholas in Our Day?

Unfortunately, regardless of  all the wonder and drama and sanctity of his life, the real St. Nicholas has gotten somewhat lost in the confusion with Santa Claus in our western world.  His feast day is on the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran calendars, but he's probably better known for one legendary act of mercy than for anything else in his long ,busy, very holy life.  Just about anyone who has any idea of  "St. Nick" can tell about the three daughters who lacked dowries to get married.  The story goes that the Bishop, hearing of their need, snuck into the family's home by night and slipped the necessary funds into the girls' stockings that had been hanging to dry by the fireplace.  This story is so ancient that the biographers of the saint believe that it has some foundation in fact.  And it is from this work of mercy that our Christmas stocking tradition proceeds.  Thus most American's single recollection of the life of our saint.


According to the details given in Wikipedia, there are still many world wide traditions associated with St. Nicholas that aren't  connected to our American Santa Claus, though some of them represent the forerunners of his tradition.  From the Netherlands to Serbia and all over the world, December 6th is remembered in feast and custom honoring St. Nicholas.  In celebration of his reknowned charity, gift-giving is usually part of the picture, of course.

And in the Church
We remember St. Nicholas in the Mass:

 Prayer of the Collect for December 6th

O God, who didst adorn by the workings of countless miracles the holy bishop Nicholas: grant, we beseech Thee, that by his merits and prayers we may be delivered from the flames of hell.  Through our Lord.....

Ways To Celebrate the Feastday?

To dive into a plethora of customs and ideas for crafts and cooking to celebrate the day, you can go to The St. Nicholas Center, most especially for the true story of our saint;  this site is an amazing resource -- the one from which I derived a lot of the facts you may have read here.  And, by all means, if you have any inclination at all toward baking for St. Nicholas Day or any of the feasts of December, Catholic Cuisine is thee go-to website.  For craft ideas, try Catholic Icing or run back over to the St. Nicholas Center for some ideas.

And for coloring pages (Gotta Have Coloring Pages!), there are several really good ones at the St. Nicholas Center, but the following icon is considered to actually most favor the real St. Nicholas:

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas!

St. Nicholas, Pray for us!

*Reworded to reflect the fact that one could not actually call St. Nicholas "Turkish" as I  originally had done.  Turkey didn't exist at that time.  St. Nicholas would have more properly have been called "Greek."  Thanks for the correction, Carol!

* * Yup,  reposted from 2012!


AnchorMama said...

We LOVE St. Nicholas! The Real St. Nicholas. I'm so glad you provided a link to see what he really looked like. How cool is that?!?

Carol said...

Actually St. Nicholas did NOT look like a "typical Turkish ecclesiastic of the fourth century." There was no such thing, as no Turks were in the areas until around six centuries later. St. Nicholas lived in Lycia, Asia Minor, a Greek province of the Roman Empire. So he was Greek, not Turkish.

Lisa said...

Fixed, Carol! Thanks!