December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas. Below, Subdeacon Brian A. Butcher, a lecturer and research fellow at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, shares insights on the saint so engrained in our Christmas traditions.
1. Who was the historical St. Nicholas?
St. Nicholas was born on March 5, 270 CE and died on Dec. 6, 343. Thus, as with most saints, we celebrate St. Nicholas' memory on the day of his death – his birth into eternal life. St. Nicholas served as bishop in the Greek city of Myra which is today's Demre, Turkey. Myra was part of what was then called Asia Minor, a region which also included such famous biblical places as Ephesus and Galatia.
2. How did the reputation of St. Nicholas as a gift-giver become so popular?
There are many stories of the magnanimous deeds of St. Nicholas and at least some of them are undoubtedly true. The uniform impression they give is of a shepherd who exercised a great concern for his flock, caring for not only their spiritual but also their physical needs, to the extent that it was within his power. The most famous story, and the one from which his reputation as a gift-giver principally derives, involves him bestowing his own personal wealth upon three poor daughters whose widowed father lacked the means to secure their welfare. In order to be married, a young woman needed her family to provide a dowry for her. Having become aware of the dire circumstances of the family in question, St. Nicholas is to have secretly deposited sufficient gold for each dowry.
3. How do his generous actions live on in customs today?
There are various versions of the story of the three gifted dowries, which correspond to the distinctive customs we see today: Germans and Dutch, for example, put out their shoes, since some say St. Nicholas threw bags of gold into the shoes of the three sisters (and, on other occasions, those of other children also). The British, by contrast, have the practice of hanging stockings by the chimney. St. Nicholas is also celebrated for discreetly dropping the bags of treasure down the chimney of the house—such that they fell into the hung stockings!
4. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of many causes. Tell us about them and why he represents such a wide spectrum – from lawyers and pharmacists to teachers and travelers.
A full list would also include children, orphans, students, sailors, bankers, pawn-brokers, labourers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers and even law-breakers. To some extent, these are simply the kind of people who appear in stories about St. Nicholas. On a voyage to the Holy Land, for example—we know that St. Nicholas lived for three years near Jerusalem—he is remembered for calming a troubled sea (and the similarly disturbed hearts of those on board) through his prayers.
5. Any other fun facts related to St. Nicholas that might be of interest to Catholics?
One remarkable medieval custom found in different parts of Western Europe—and even observed in a few churches today—is that of the "boy bishop." On St. Nicholas' Day, a chosen boy would be vested as a bishop and given the (temporary!) right to rule, to preside at liturgical services (except the Mass), even to command alms to be given to the poor. Thus the original bishop of Myra's care for the needy—and love of children—are combined. Perhaps the practice also conveys the deeply Christian sense that true holiness really can turn the world topsy-turvy, showing us how off-kilter our usual priorities may be, and how we need to radically re-adjust so as to live worthily as citizens of the Kingdom.