We all know about jolly, old St. Nicholas that we see on TV, in advertisements, and on street corners ringing his bell, but how much do we know about the real St. Nicholas, Catholic Bishop and Defender of the Faith?
St. Nicholas was the son of devout, Christian parents, Theophanes and Nonna. They died in a plague while Nicholas was still young, leaving him an orphan. It was from them that Nicholas inherited his fortune that he so famously used to bless others.
Tortured and Imprisoned
Many people do not know that St. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured for Christ. The Roman emperor, Diocletian, began a fierce and vicious persecution against Christians when he took power. During this time, Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured (some accounts claim he was tortured with hot iron pliers) for refusing to deny Christ. The persecution was so severe that it is said the jails were so full of priests and bishops, that there was no room for true criminals to be imprisoned.
Following his release from prison, he was once again imprisoned, this time for defending the Faith against a heretic! According to tradition, Bishop Nicholas was attending the Council of Nicea, which was called by the Emperor Constantine in order to discuss the heresy of Arianism. This heresy, promoted by a priest named Arius, claimed that the Son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither coeternal with the Father, nor consubstantial, which meant that he was denying the divinity of Christ.
According to legend, St. Nicholas was so indignant at the teachings that Arius was promoting, that he slapped him across the face! For this, the other bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him and threw him in jail. Imagine their surprise the following day when they found Bishop Nicholas fully clothed in his bishop’s garments, chains loosened, reading the Scriptures. When questioned about this, Nicholas told them that Our Lord and Our Lady visited him, and restored to him his vestments and the Scriptures. Upon learning this, Constantine requested his release and Nicholas returned to the Council.
His Bones Ooze Oil
After St. Nicholas’s death in 346 A.D. his tomb was said to ooze a sweet smelling oil that had healing properties. When Turkey was conquered by the Seljuq Turks in 1071, Christians who had a special devotion to St. Nicholas took his bones to safety in a Christian territory for protection. In 1087 his bones were once again transferred to Bari, Italy where they were later re-intered in a Basilica built to honor the great saint. His new marble tomb also began to ooze this fragrant oil which came to be known as the Manna of St. Nicholas. The collection of the manna continues to this very day.
Devotion in the Byzantine Catholic Church
St. Nicholas is the Patron Saint of the Byzantine Catholic Church. Inspired by his love for the poor, great devotion to St. Nicholas increased among the people of the Eastern Christian Churches. It is very common to see an icon of St. Nicholas on the iconostasis (icon screen) at the front of most Byzantine Catholic Churches. On the feast of St. Nicholas (December 6th), special prayers and hymns are sung throughout the Divine Liturgy.
O who loves Nicholas the saintly,
O who serves Nicholas the saintly;
Him will Nicholas receive,
and give help in time of need,
Holy Father Nicholas! - Hymn to St. Nicholas
Although the traditional Santa Claus in his red suit and bushy beard is a beloved and familiar image during the Christmas season, we would do well to remember the holy and good example given to us by the real St. Nicholas, Bishop and Defender of the Faith.