St Nicholas

Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 22(23); Matthew 15:29-37

Nicholas’s existence is not attested by any historical document, so nothing certain is known of his life except that he was probably bishop of Myra in the 4th century. According to tradition, he was born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara, and, when young, traveled to Palestine and Egypt. He became bishop of Myra soon after returning to Lycia. He was imprisoned and likely tortured during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian but was released under the rule of Constantine the Great. He may have attended the first Council of Nicaea (325), where he allegedly struck the heretic Arius in the face. He was buried in his church at Myra, and by the 6th century his shrine there had become well known. In 1087 Italian sailors or merchants stole his alleged remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy; this removal greatly increased the saint’s popularity in Europe, and Bari became one of the most crowded of all pilgrimage centres. Nicholas’s relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola at Bari, though fragments have been acquired by churches around the world. In 2017 researchers dated one such relic fragment, a piece of hip bone, from a church in the United States and confirmed it to be from the 4th century.

After the Reformation, devotion to Nicholas disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name St. Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country’s English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The resulting image of Santa Claus in the United States crystallized in the 19th century, and he has ever since remained the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas.

Under various guises, St. Nicholas was transformed into a similar benevolent gift-giving figure in the Netherlands, Belgium, and other northern European countries. In the United Kingdom, Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas.

Posted in Daily Reflection.