Good Ole Saint Nicholas

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German postcard. Image from St. Nicholas Center, http://www.stnicholascenter.org

Saint Nicholas, the one we have come to know and love as Jolly Ole Saint Nick, aka SANTA. But how much do you really know about him?

Today, December 6th, is Saint Nicholas Day. A holiday celebrated in most of the European countries. Children will set out shoes with coins, hoping for a small present or Dutch children will put carrots and hay in shoes, again waiting for a gift. For me, the Christmas season starts on this day: the children’s eyes getting large with seeing a present in their shoe, the excitement of the month, the parent’s giddiness in showing surprise that St. Nick was there. Even though in the U.S.A we don’t celebrate St. Nicholas, we are still hanging the wreath on the front door, starting to put up the tree, deciding what color lights this year – blue or red, maybe white. I remember being super duper good throughout the month of December so I would get all that I wished for from Santa. Please, the Barbie Dream House!

Our beloved Santa is a mythical figure. What? Say it isn’t so! Sorry for any spoilers I just gave away. Pssst, the tooth fairy ain’t real either. But I love to see my nephew’s or my student’s faces light up when they talk about either of them. By the way, the tooth fairy in Spain is a mouse. Hehe.

But THE Saint Nicholas was a real to goodness, live person who, as legend has it, performed amazing miracles and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus. He was born a looooong time ago, in the year 270 AD and died on this date (Dec 6th) in 343 AD.

Some of these miracles you might ask? The main one happened when he was quite young. He was on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Christianity – the Holy Land and set sail on an Egyptian ship. During the night he had a vivid dream of a terrible storm that would put them all at risk. He warned the sailors of this storm but also said not to worry, for “God will protect them.” Within minutes the sky grew dark and the waves high and strong, the sailors were extremely frightened. One sailor climbed the mast to secure the ropes so the mast wouldn’t crash onto the deck. As he was coming down, he slipped and fell to his death. Nicholas began to pray over him and as he did the storm began to ease. The fallen sailor soon awoke without pain and the ship finished its journey.

Astonishing, no?

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The dowry for the three virgins (Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1425, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome).

Another tells a story of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without a dowry, would be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.

There are more miracles, saving people from famine, sparing the lives of the innocently accused, one with him saving a child even after Nicholas had died. Also, bringing three children (sometimes the stories say it was three students, some three clerks) back to life after an evil inn keeper murdered them to sell as pork pies. Kinda reminds me of the Sweeney Todd musical.

Whatever the case he is the patron saint for many – sailors, merchants, children, voyagers, repentant thieves, pawn-brokers, students and even marriageable maidens. So all you marriageable maidens out there, fly your Saint Nicholas flag high!! 🙂

And that, is the true story of Saint Nick. Now where are my shoes?

 

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