For years, many people have heard stories and watched movies about St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus as he is known best. Yet his true identity remains a mystery. In The Old Farmer’s Almanac December Monthly we take a look at the legends surrounding St. Nicholas.
The Legend of St. Nicholas
In the 3rd century, in the village of Patara in Turkey (part of Greece in those days), a wealthy couple gave birth to a boy they named Nicholas. Tragically, while Nicholas was young, an epidemic took the lives of both of his parents.
Having been raised as a Christian, he dedicated his life to service, sold all of his belongings, and used his inheritance to help the poor and infirm. Eventually, Nicholas became a bishop, and his reputation for helping children, sailors, and other people in need spread far and wide. For this, the Roman emperor Diocletian persecuted and imprisoned him (and other religious men)—but only until the Romans realized that they had so filled their prisons with clergy that they had no place to put the thieves and murderers. So the Romans let the religious men go free.
Upon his release, Nicholas continued his charity work until he died on December 6, A.D. 343. It was said that a liquid that formed in his grave had healing powers. This and other legends about Nicholas, including the two below, fostered devotion to him and inspired traditions still practiced today.
- In one tale, a poor man had three daughters and no dowry for any of them, thus eliminating their chance at marriage and risking their being sold into slavery instead. Mysteriously, as each girl came of marriageable age, a bag of gold (or, in some versions, a ball of gold or an orange) was lobbed through a window and landed in a sock or shoe near the hearth. The unknown gift-giver was presumed to have been Nicholas, and the situation inspired the placement by the fireplace of stockings or shoes, into which were placed gifts.
- Another legend dates from long after Nicholas’s passing. In his home village, during a celebration on the anniversary of Nicholas’s death, a young boy was kidnapped to become a slave to a neighboring region’s emir. The family grieved for a year, and on the anniversary of the boy’s disappearance, they refused to leave their home. Good thing: As the story goes, Nicholas appeared, spirited the boy away from his captors, and deposited him in his house—with the gold cup from which he was serving the emir still in his hand. This once again established Nicholas as a patron and protector of children.
Nicholas was celebrated as a saint within a century of his death and today is venerated as the patron not only of children but also of sailors, captives, travelers, marriageable maidens, laborers—even thieves and murderers. He is the patron of many cities and regions, and thousands of churches are named for him around the world.
For more information on St. Nicholas and the cultural traditions surrounding him, check out our December Monthly! We also feature some of our most scrumptious holiday cookies to try out this season!
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