(More on the life of St. Nicholas will be forthcoming on this website. We thank Petr Chudoba for his research and graciousness in sharing his love and devotion to the Wonderworker of Myra and Lycea. For the complete text, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
…Since the ninth century in the East and the eleventh century in the West, St. Nicholas has been one of the most popular Saints of Christendom: a patron of countries, provinces, dioceses and cities; the Saint of sailors, children, merchants, pawnbrokers and others; a man celebrated in pious custom and folklore; and one represented countless times in icons, paintings and carvings.
An anonymous Greek wrote in the tenth century that,
“…the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the furthest parts of the Earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. Images of him are set up, panegyrics preached and festivals celebrated. All Christians, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, reverence his memory and call upon his protection. And his favors, which know no limit of time and continue from age to age, are poured out over all the Earth; the Scythians know them, as do the Indians and the barbarians, the Africans as well as the Italians.”
St. Nicholas grew to such great popularity in the Orthodox Church that his icon eventually became the fourth most important icon in the hierarchy of the iconostasis, the wooden lacework that separates the altar from the congregation.
To disregard the legends (of St. Nicholas) would be to condemn ourselves to lose so much of the past. Let us give the word back its real meaning: legends are “legenda,” things we must read. There are icons, statues, paintings and stained-glass windows depicting St. Nicholas everywhere in Christendom. In memory of the devoted hands that made them, and of the innumerable people who have prayed beside them, let us quite simply read these legends, with, if possible, the eyes of the past in search of God’s true witness, St. Nicholas.
The Early Years of St. Nicholas
Nicholas was exceedingly well brought up by his parents and walked piously in their footsteps. He then strove to live according to the Christian principles he’d learned from them and from his parents.
His mother and father taught him to be generous to others, especially to those in need.
Nicholas learned that helping others makes one richer in life than anything else.
St. Simeon Metaphrastes wrote that young Nicholas showed from the beginning that he wanted to please God.
Nicholas was nine years old when a plague swept through his village. Both his father and mother died. Although Nicholas moved in with friends of his parents, he felt lost without the two people he’d loved so dearly. The seed that they had planted in him, however, continued to grow.
Young Nicholas often visited his uncle Nicholas, who was bishop over Patara, and helped him with the Divine Liturgy there. Nicholas assisted the older men at the church so that he’d benefit from their example and guidance.
Under Uncle Nicholas’ guardianship, the young boy learned the texts of prayers, details of rituals, and showed a remarkably quick mind and sincere devotion.
Nicholas passed entire days and nights in church lifting up his heart to God in prayer and reading the Holy Scriptures and other Christian books. He meditated on spiritual knowledge, enriching himself in the divine grace of the Holy Spirit and creating within himself a worthy dwelling for Him.
His uncle rejoiced at the spiritual success and deep piety of his nephew. He ordained Nicholas a reader in the church, and then elevated him to the dignity of presbyter, making him his assistant and entrusting him to speak, instructing the flock. In serving the Lord, young Nicholas was fervent of spirit, and in his proficiency with questions of faith, he was like an elder, which aroused the wonder and deep respect of believers.
Constantly at work and in prayer, presbyter Nicholas displayed great kind-heartedness towards the flock, and towards the afflicted who came to him for help.
St Nicholas added labors to labors; keeping vigil and remaining in unceasing prayer and fasting, he, being mortal, strove to imitate the bodiless ones. Merciful, trustworthy and loving what is right, he walked among the people like an angel of God.
Having obtained his parents’ inheritance, St Nicholas distributed it to the needy. For he paid no attention to temporal riches. His hand was outstretched to the poor, on whom it poured alms richly, as a water-filled river abounds in streams.
His parents had left him an inheritance, which enabled him to buy food for the hungry, to dress the naked and care for orphans and widows. One story claims that he would dress up in a disguise and go out into the streets and give gifts to poor children.
Nicholas was careful to remain anonymous with his charities. Usually he preferred to receive no credit for his gifts, desiring rather to make his visits to the homes of the poor and unfortunate under the cloak of darkness so that no one would know who he was. Nicholas felt that if anyone should receive the praise and glory, it should be God, and not himself.
“’But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.’” (Matthew 6:3-4)
People considered him a Saint even during his lifetime, and invoked his aid when in torment or distress.
Sources on St. Nicholas Through the Ages
Actual biographic data on Nicholas is severely limited. Although he lived in the fourth century, the records of his life and miracles – at least those records that have remained intact – only began to accumulate from the sixth century onward. To what degree these are based on earlier writings or oral traditions is hardly ever clear. The various Vitae (life stories) of St. Nicholas borrow heavily from each other.
Historians readily admit that the seventh and eighth centuries in the East were “dark ages,” so little have they left us in the way of writings; we have nothing from them about St. Nicholas. But, on the other hand, the ninth and tenth centuries give us an abundance of documents about him. He was venerated throughout the Christian Church at that time. Calendars put his name to the sixth of December.
Many people wrote about the life of St. Nicholas throughout the ages. This appears to be the order of the main writings:
Archimandrite Michael (ninth century): His Vita Per Michaëlem is said to be the earliest of all the biographies of St. Nicholas. The author says that others have written about St. Nicholas before him, but it’s clear from his text that no complete biography existed before his time; still, at least partial accounts must, in fact, have been written. Michael also refers to an oral tradition he received from a monk. His work is punctuated by moral and theological considerations.
Methodius (ninth century): The oldest known account of the life of St. Nicholas is by Methodius, Bishop of Constantinople, 842 to 846 AD.
Simeon Logotheta Metaphrastes (tenth century): Simeon collected the lives of the Saints from oral tradition and written collections. He copied some lives as written and rewrote others. He arranged the lives in the order of the Saints’ feast days, and his work became so popular that many earlier hagiography has been lost. His Vita Per Metaphrasten was the last classical Greek text on the life of St. Nicholas. It drew upon the Vita Per Michaëlem and the Laudatioi Sancti Nicolai by Methodius. This biography was the most widely read and, in fact, became the generally accepted and, so to speak, canonical text on St. Nicholas. It was one of the chief sources for all later Western biographies.
(There are many hagiographers in the Western Christian world, but space here doesn’t allow us to list them all.)
Any given detail we are told about St. Nicholas may or may not correspond with historical reality. While we do not deny the possibility of miracles, it is up to us which of these particular miracles we accept. There is no incontestable evidence for the truth of the details of his life and miracles.