Who was St Nicolas?
There are few saints better known than St Nicolas of Myra and yet there is remarkably little that we can say for certain about his life. There are, however, a large number of old legends and tales which more than make up for the lack of facts.
St. Nicolas is said to have been born in Patara, a town in Asia Minor in the late 3rd century (around 280 AD). Directly he was born, St. Nicolas was placed in a basin of water to be washed. Much to his nurse’s astonishment, he stood up and remained upright, with folded hands and eyes lifted up to heaven, for two hours.
He also fasted from an early age, refusing food till after sundown. Both his parents died of the plague when he was young and left him with a considerable fortune with which he was always ready to help those less fortunate than himself. In the early 4th century, he was elected Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (present day Turkey).
We are told that one day, he heard that a nobleman, the father of three girls, was unable to provide them with dowries, and was going to cast them out to make what living they could. When St. Nicolas heard of the predicament, he secretly went to the nobleman’s house one evening and flung a bag of gold through an open window. With this, the father arranged an honourable match for his eldest daughter. Soon after, St. Nicolas threw in a second bag of gold with which the second daughter was married. The third time, the grateful father observed St. Nicolas. The three bags of gold have become the three balls of gold, the emblem of the pawnbroker of whom St. Nicolas is the patron saint.
The following legend explains how St. Nicolas became the patron saint of scholars. A certain Asiatic gentleman sent his three sons to school in Athens with instructions to call on St. Nicolas on the way, in order to receive his blessing. The boys stayed in an inn for the night and, either to obtain their baggage or because he was short of pork, the local inn-keeper murdered them. He put their bodies into his pickling tubs, intending to sell the whole as pork. St. Nicolas either saw this in a vision or heard of it, and, going into the tavern, demanded to see the pickling tubs. As he spoke, the bodies of the three boys came together again and they jumped out very much alive.
When St. Nicolas was first ordained as priest, he set off on a journey to the Holy Land. The ship that bore him was nearly wrecked in a storm, being saved by the prayers of the saint. The ship reached Alexandria safely, and he went on to Jerusalem. Ever after, St. Nicolas was known as the patron saint of sailors. This story is retold in our beautiful glass panels in the Hall. Even during his lifetime, he was invoked by sailors and is said to have appeared from time to time in a tempest, taking the rudder of the ship and guiding it to safety.
St. Nicolas is thought to have died on 6th December 345 AD or 352 AD, which has become his Feast Day. With his practice of secret giving, particularly to children, and the proximity of his Feast Day to Christmas, it is easy to see how the popular image of St. Nicolas has gradually evolved into the much-loved figure of Santa Claus.
In Christian art, he is represented with purses of gold or three gold balls and is dressed in his Bishop’s robes. The picture at the top of this page can be seen in St Nicolas Church on the left of the window over the North entrance (directly opposite as you enter the Church). His three purses of gold and bishop's mitre can be seen above the organ pipes at the end of the north aisle. St Nicolas is also depicted in the left-hand side of the spectacular East Window.