Nicholas was born in the town of Patara (previously called Arsinoe, an ancient city of Lycia, in present day Antalya Province of Turkey), in a Christian merchant family, one of the most wealthy in the city. The parents had been childless for years and already had no hope of bearing children, when God answered to their prayers and tears, blessing them with a child.
The blessed youth was given the name Nicholas, and he showed himself to be a reverent venerator of God from the very birth. The child began to perform miracles earlier than he began to feed on his mother's milk, and started fasting earlier than he tasted the food. In the baptismal font he stood on his feet for three hours, supported by no one, rendering his honour to the Holy Trinity.
Picture: Birth of St Nicholas. Detail from “The Story of St Nicholas” by Fra Angelico, 1447-48.
When the time came to learn the divine Scriptures, Nicholas in a little time attained much wisdom and succeeded in book-learning. He avoided vain friends and idle conversations with women, and preserved a true chastity and a pure mind, always contemplating on the Lord. Nicholas had an uncle, bishop of Patara, of the same name as his nephew. The bishop noticed that the boy was successful in the virtuous life and advised his parents to give Nicholas to the service of God. Parents agreed, in their gratitude to God, who had blessed them with a child.
After some time Nicholas was raised to the rank of priest. While ordaining his nephew, uncle pronounced a prophecy by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: "I see a new sun rising above the earth and manifesting in himself a gracious consolation for the afflicted. Blessed is the flock that will be worthy to have him as its pastor, because this one will shepherd well the souls of those who have gone astray, will nourish them on the pasturage of piety, and will be a merciful helper in misfortune and tribulation." This prophecy was later fulfilled, indeed. Nicholas, this priest of God, took good care of the parish. When he was quite young, his parents passed on to eternal life. Having obtained their estate in inheritance, Nicholas distributed it to the poor. He paid no attention to temporal riches but, renouncing all earthly desires, with all his heart he wished to devote himself to God. In this way he continued to support the needy and to be an invisible benefactor. One of the most famous stories concerning his generous deeds is telling about three young girls who got in troubles…
Dowries for three unfortunate sisters
There were three young sisters who all had suitors but had no dowries and thus couldn’t marry because their father, a poor nobleman, could not raise the money. Desperate father decided to sell his eldest daughter into slavery and prostitution to have some money and save the rest ones.
The night before the daughter was to be sold, Nicholas secretly approached their dwelling, threw a small bag of golden coins through the window and disappeared. In the morning, by finding money, the father was sincerely touched and grateful to the anonymous benefactor. He arranged immediately the marriage of the eldest daughter. When the second daughter was ready to marry, and they were again out of money, Nicholas left another bag of gold to help her. And when came turn of the third daughter to marry, the poor nobleman, wishing to find out who had been so generous, kept watch and saw the bishop drop another bag of gold into the house.
Picture: Giving dowry to three poor maidens. Detail from “The Story of St Nicholas” by Fra Angelico, 1447-48.
In other versions it is said Nicholas climbed on the roof and dropped the bag of gold down the chimney where it landed in a stocking hung to dry. This legend possibly gave the birth of a tradition to hang the stockings near the fireplace awaiting the gifts on St Nicholas Day and Christmas.
Later holy father Nicholas wished to go to Palestine, to see and venerate holy places of Jesus Christ. During his travel other miracles happened which made him a patron of sailors:
The storm and the perished sailor
When the ship with Nicholas on board sailed near Egypt, he foresaw that a storm would arise, telling the travellers that he had seen the devil entering the ship with the intent to drown all of them in the depths of the sea. At that very moment the heavens were covered with clouds, and a powerful storm broke out. The travellers were terrified and despaired, and they asked holy father Nicholas to save them from death. So Nicholas began praying to the Lord, and soon the sea became calm, and they could proceed their journey safely.
After this it happened that one of the sailors had climbed to the top of the mast, but in descending he slipped and fell from the heights to the middle of the ship, lying breathless. Nicholas, always ready to help, resurrected him by his prayer, and the man rose as if awaking from sleep.
Reaching the city of Jerusalem, Nicholas visited the holy places, making fervent veneration everywhere. And when he was about to enter the holy church for a prayer, the doors swung open by themselves in front of him.
He came back to the monastery founded by his uncle, received there with great love as an angel of God. Nicholas wished to spend the remaining time of his life in the monastery, but God showed him a different way, because he was intended to turn many souls onto the way of God.
So Nicholas began to consider where he should go, and was led by divine providence to the city of Myra (an ancient town in Lycia, in present day Antalya Province of Turkey). By that time the Bishop of Myra had died, and all bishops, priests and leading people from the surroundings gathered in the church, praying to God and asking to point out the next Bishop. One night God appeared to one of the ministers in a dream telling that the following morning, during their usual prayer in the cathedral, a man would enter, who had to be their choice. When the hour came, a young man entered the cathedral, and it was Nicholas, who was going to recite the morning prayer. And so the minister told him: "Nicholas, servant of God, for your holiness you shall be bishop of this place." In this way Nicholas was consecrated the Byshop of Myra, and in his new position he opened the doors to all people, being always of help where it was needed.
Picture: St Nicholas Bishop of Myra. Detail from “The Story of St Nicholas” by Fra Angelico, 1447-48.
During persecution against the Church of Christ by pagan emperors Diocletian and Maximian the blessed Nicholas was seized by the torturers and confined in prison together with many Christians. He bared severe suffering and tortures, and was released with the victory of the Christian Emperor Constantine. So the city of Myra received again its shepherd, the great Bishop Nicholas. There are evidences that Nicholas was also among the 318 fathers of the ecumenical council in the city of Nicea (present-day İznik in Turkey), established by Emperor Constantine. It was the first effort to attain agreement in the church through an assembly representing all of the Christian world.
Famine in Myra and the miracle of the grain
Picture: Miracle of the grain. Detail from “The Story of St Nicholas” by Fra Angelico, 1447-48.
Once in the land of Lycia there was a great famine, and in the city of Myra there was an extreme shortage of food. Feeling pity for the unfortunate people who were perishing from hunger, God's bishop appeared to a captain of ships, loaded with grain and bound for Alexandria, and asked him to sell some of the grain from each ship to the people of Myra. But the captain answered that he couldn’t do that, because the grain was strictly meted and measured and no shortage would be accepted at the destination place. Nicholas assured him, that the weight of the grain would be conserved, and finally the captain agreed to help the starving city. They unloaded some sacks of the grain from each ship, and Nicholas distributed it among the citizens, for whom the grain miraculously lasted for two years, until the end of famine.
And the captain, on his arrival in Alexandria, found the grain on the ships in the same amount and weight as it had been before Myra.
Three butchered children
During the famine in a region three little children were coming back home after the day of work in the field and got lost in the countryside. They walked until twilight, trying to find the way, when finally saw a lit house. But it happened that a malicious butcher lived in this house. Seeing the tired children all alone he lured them into the house, offering food and bed. And as soon as they fell asleep, the evil man slaughtered and butchered them, putting their bodies into the big barrel with salt, in order to sell them later as ham.
Nicholas was visiting the region for famine and he saw through the butcher’s crime. So he came into the house of the man and asked him to serve some meat. The butcher realized that his crime had been discovered and fled out of the house fearing the wrath of the bishop. Nicholas found the tub, blessed it and opened it. The resurrected children came out of the barrel entire and healthy, as if awakening from a long sleep.
Picture: Two Legends of St. Nicholas by Gerard David. 1500-1510.
The image of Nicholas and the thieves
There was a Jew who saw the virtuous miracles of bishop Nicholas and made an image of him, placing it in the house and “ordering” it to keep his habitation safe from thieves in the absence of the master, otherwise he would beat and torment the image. But once, when the Jew was out, the thieves managed to enter the house, taking away all his goods, leaving only the image of Nicholas. Coming back and seeing what had happened, the Jew “punished” the image like he had promised before. Then a miracle happened, and Nicholas appeared to the thieves and said: “Wherefore have I been beaten so cruelly and have so many torments for you? I am Nicholas the servant of Jesus Christ, whom the Jew has beaten for his goods that you’ve taken away. See how my body is hewed and broken, go and restore it again, before everyone knows about your felony and you will be hanged.” The thieves came to Jew, and saw what he had done to the image, so they told him about their vision, and restored all his stolen goods. Thus, the thieves came to the way of truth, and the Jew came to the way of Christ.
Books about St Nicholas:
Many other great wonders were performed on land and sea by Nicholas. He helped those in distress, saved from drowning, released from captivity, delivered from prison, defended from being wounded by the sword, resurrected from death and made many miraculous healings. He enriched many people suffering in extreme poverty, gave food to the hungry, and to all those in need he appeared as a ready helper, a warm intercessor and speedy mediator and defender.
The pictures illustrating the life of St Nicholas are taken from http://www.wga.hu, http://www.wikipaintings.org
Video about St Nicholas, by CCTN Leesburg
There is a cinematographic project “Nicholas of Myra”, the interpretation of the holy life of the Saint:
Trailer of the project: