Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 95; Matthew 18.12-14
There was a real Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a maritime city now called Demre in present-day Turkey, during the 4thCentury. There is little else that is historically verifiable about his life, though. He may well have attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 (the Council at which much of the present ‘Nicene Creed’ was agreed) and possibly struck the heretic Arius in the face for his blasphemy. It is less likely that he rescued three young boys who were being pickled in brine by a butcher who intended to sell them as pork during a famine. Whether historically true or legendary, though, the story which has most defined Nicholas is that under cover of darkness he tossed three bags of gold through the roof of the house of a poor father to provide doweries for his three daughters. As ‘Santa Claus’ (his exotic cape and cap perhaps a 17th Century Dutch Protestant re-imagination of the bishop’s cope and mitre) St Nicholas continues to function as a symbol of charity to children, bringing gifts that arrive outside ordinary channels and always at night.
What is certainly true is that a church dedicated to St Nicholas was built in Myra fewer than 200 years after his death. In the 11th Century, his great bones were removed from his sarcophagus in order to preserve them from Muslim Turks; they were brought to Bari in Italy where they remain today. Later, during the First Crusade, Venetian sailors brought the rest of the bones from the sarcophagus to Venice.