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The Historical Saint Nicholas

Part 3 of 3

The Death of St. Nicholas

Now when the Lord decided to take Nicholas to him, the saint prayed that he might send him his angels, and, with his head still bowed in prayer, he saw them approaching him. He recited the Psalm 'In thee, O Lord, have I trusted' (Psalm 30 (31), and when he reached the words: 'Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit' (v. 5), he breathed his last, and at his passing, the heavenly choirs were heard. This was in the year 343.

The Myrrh from the Bishop of Myra and The Bishop’s Successor

When he was buried in his marble tomb, a stream of oil flowed from his head and a stream of water from his feet, and holy oil still issues from his body today and heals many sick people. Nicholas's successor was a good man, but he was expelled from his see by the jealousy of his rivals. While he was in exile, the holy oil stopped flowing, but as soon as he was recalled it began to flow again.

Guace (or Wace), a Norman French scribe, wrote the life of Nicholas as Metric Poems for use as sermons in 1150. The poem was nearly 1500 lines long, and included descriptions of the 21 miracles of the Saint. Ten of the most frequently repeated miracles have already been noted:

  • The Miracles of Infancy

  • The Three Daughters

  • Nicholas’ Election as Bishop

  • One Miracle Concerning Sailors

  • The Three Schoolboys

  • The Famine and the Grain

  • The Cleansing of the Temple of Diana

  • The Three Princes and The Three Soldiers

  • The Myrrh from the Bishop of Myra.

  • The Bishop’s Successor

Other reported miracles of Nicholas include:

  1. In the excitement of going to see her archbishop, a woman left her baby in a tub of water over a fire. Remembering, she appealed to Nicholas and the baby was found unhurt, playing in the bubbling water.

  2. A child, so afflicted by a demon as to be uncontrollable, was brought to the bishop who drove out the demon and healed the child.

  3. The saint healed great numbers of the sick and freed many from evil spirits.

  4. A pagan who had crossed the sea to rob Christians found an image of St. Nicholas and was told it would protect his ill-gotten gains. However, thieves stole his loot, so he struck the image of the saint. Nevertheless, the saint saw to it that the monies were returned, and both robber and thieves were converted to Christianity.

  5. A Christian borrowed money from a Jew and pledged repayment on the image of St. Nicholas. When the debt was due, he declared he had paid it. The Jew said he would consider the debt satisfied if, at their next meeting, the debtor would swear on the saint's image that the money had been returned. On the day of the meeting the Christian enclosed the money due in a walking stick and asked the Jew to hold it while he took the oath. Retrieving the stick, he started homeward only to be struck by a cart, which broke the stick and exposed the fraud. The Jew got his money, the Christian was returned to health and integrity, and the Jew's entire household was converted.

  6. Fulfilling a vow, a man had a costly cup made to offer at the saint's tomb. Then, considering it too beautiful to give, he had a cheaper one made. With his wife and son he went on a pilgrimage to Myra, and on the voyage his son, while holding the finer cup, fell overboard. At the church, the bereaved father laid the second cup on the altar, but it repeatedly fell off. The repentant father confessed, causing the son with the finer cup to come running to him.

  7. A long-married couple made a pilgrimage to Myra to pray for a son. Their prayers were answered. The child, who was born on St. Nicholas Day, was later stolen and sold to the Saracen emperor and grew up in his service. Every December 6 the couple prayed for his return until finally their prayers were answered. Their son was returned to them on St. Nicholas Day.

  8. While sleeping at an inn, the innkeeper killed a merchant on a pilgrimage to the church at Myra, his mangled remains put into a barrel. The saint came, restored the merchant to life, and left in the night. The next morning the innkeeper, in fear and amazement, joined the merchant on his pilgrimage.

  9. A man of Lombardie celebrated the saint's feast day annually. On one such occasion, his young daughter was left alone in the house. The devil appeared at the door disguised as a beggar asking for bread and strangled the little girl. Then, after the father had returned, St. Nicholas appeared at the door disguised as a pilgrim asking for bread. The father showed him the child's body, and she was soon brought back to life.

  10. A baron-pilgrim, wishing to take back to his country a relic of the saint, made off with a tooth. Through its wrappings came a steady flow of oil. Then, after the saint appeared to the baron in a dream saying that his body must not be divided, he awoke to find the tooth gone.

  11. A paralytic who could not even raise his hand was carried to the monastery of the saint, who anointed him with holy oils and prayed--and he was healed.

Churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in honor of him by 450.

An elaborate Basilica was built over his tomb in 540 and dedicated to the saint by the Roman emperor Justinian I, at Constantinople, now Istanbul.

By 800, he was officially recognized as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church. An early life of St. Nicholas listing all his miracles, was written in Greek by Saint Methodius, Bishop of Constantinople in 842; it was translated into Latin by John the Deacon in approximately 880. And in 850, the Clergy of Cologne Cathedral were commemorating the death of the saint by giving fruit and cookies to the boys of the cathedral school, on the 6th December. By the ninth century, the first hymns to Nicholas were created.

Nicholas became Patron Saint of Russia in 987 by decree of Duke Vladimir; he was readily adopted as Nikolai Choodovoritz (Nicholas, Miracle Maker).

In 1084, the Turks took Antioch. Three years later, in 1087, 47 Italian soldiers stole the bones of St. Nicholas from his tomb in Demre and on May 9th brought his body to Bari, Italy (for this reason he is sometimes known as Saint Nicholas of Bari.). The theft was unofficially approved by the Church, which was anxious in case the shrine of the saint was desecrated in the many wars and attacks in the region. Also, by that time, the break between the Universal Church creating Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, was a contributing factor. The Roman Church felt that the bones of this most popular of saints should be in their safekeeping. This removal greatly increased his popularity, and Bari became one of the most crowded pilgrimage centers. His relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century Basilica of S. Nicola at Bari. Pope Urban II was present at the enshrining of the relics of the saint in the basilica.

Life of St. Nicholas written by the Norman monk John (or Jean) of Saint Ouen in Rouen in 1119. At about the same time, nuns in Belgium and France were giving gifts to the children of the poor, and those in their care, on the Saints Feast Day, 6th December. This is among the first instances where gift giving is performed in the name of Saint Nicholas.

Hilarius, who studied under Peter Abelard, wrote the first 'musical' play about Nicholas in 1200. And in the 1200s, December sixth began to be celebrated as Bishop Nicholas Day in France.

In the late 1200s, Jacobus de Voragine put together The Golden Legend, a compilation of the lives of the saints, including a section on Saint Nicholas. The Golden Legend, with numerous additions by later writers, formed the basis for many of the ‘historical’ works concerning Nicholas and other saints.

By 1400, over 500 songs and hymns had been written in honor of Nicholas. And in 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on December 6th, naming the port St. Nicholas in thanks for the safe journey. By end of the 1400s, St Nicholas was the third most beloved religious figure, after Jesus and Mary. There were more than 2000 chapels and monasteries named after him, exceeded only by the Virgin Mary. More than 700 churches in Britain alone, were dedicated to St. Nicholas.

In the Americas, St. Nicholas played an early and prominent role. The cathedral of the Vikings in Greenland was dedicated to Nicholas. Jacksonville, Florida under the Spanish was first known as St. Nicholas Ferry.

Devotion to Nicholas extended to all parts of the world; his name has been given to places in many countries; numerous surnames of persons are derived from Nicholas. He has been the patron saint:

  • of Russia and Greece, of Moscow, Paris, and Fribourg (Switzerland);

  • of pilgrims and preachers, infants and children, orphans, scholars and students, and spinsters;

  • of sailors and seamen, fishermen, boatmen, ferrymen, longshoremen, bargemen, plankmen, dockers, shipwrights and gaugers, navigators, sea voyagers, and those in shipwreck;

  • of thieves, prisoners, registrars, notaries, clerks of court, lawyers, and judges;

  • of bakers, pawnbrokers, merchants and shopkeepers;

  • of those involved in the cloth trade and allied professions including button makers, lace makers, weavers, shearmen, drapers, haberdashers and cloth merchants;

  • of tallow merchants and candle makers, chandlers and oil merchants, perfumers, bottlers, florists and embalmers, pharmacists and apothecaries;

  • of commission grain dealers and merchants, seed merchants, grain carriers, weighers, millers, grocers and brewers;

  • of wine porters, wine merchants and wine vendors, coopers and brewers;

  • of tanners and butchers;

  • and wolves.

As patron saint of sailors, his effigy was the figurehead of many ships, and thus his cult spread from Asia Minor to Italy, Spain, Holland and Britain (and later to the New World).

His miracles were a favorite subject for medieval artists and liturgical plays, and his traditional feast day of December 6th was the occasion for the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop, a widespread European custom in which a boy was elected Bishop and reigned until Holy Innocents' Day (December 28).

Over time, the date of his death, December 6th was commemorated with an annual feast, which gradually came to mark the beginning of the medieval Christmas season.


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