Very little is known about the life of Nicholas, except that he was the bishop of Myra, on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey, and that he suffered torture and imprisonment during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. It is possible that he was one of the bishops attending the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 (though he is not in any of the early lists of bishops present at the Council). Tradition holds that he was a defender of orthodoxy against Arianism. According to one legend, he was censured by the emperor Constantine after he dealt Arius a blow to the head during a session of the Council of Nicaea, his patience having been sorely tried by Arius’ behavior during the Council.
He was honored as a saint in Constantinople by the late sixth century by the Emperor Justinian, who in 580 dedicated a church to Nicholas in that city. His veneration became immensely popular in the West after the supposed removal of his body to Bari, Italy, in the late eleventh century (the three ships in which his relics were brought from Myra to to the seaport of Bari play a role in the Christmas carol, “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day in the morning”). In England almost 400 churches were dedicated to Nicholas, and there have perhaps been more churches and chapels dedicated to him throughout the world than to any other saint.
Nicholas is famed as the patron of Russia and Greece, the guardian of virgins and poor maidens, the protector of travelers, sailors, and merchants. He is also the patron of many towns and cities, including Bari, Venice, Freiburg, and Galway. In modern times he is perhaps best known as the protector and benefactor of children. One of the best known of the legendary narratives which demonstrate Nicholas’ love for God and for his neighbor is the story of his provision of dowries for three unmarried young women. The story is told that the father did not have money sufficient for their dowries, so on three successive nights Nicholas threw a bag of money through an open window, thus providing dowries for the man’s three daughters and probably saving them from lives of shame and prostitution.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints,
and the New Book of Festivals & Commemorations (Philip H. Pfatteicher, Fortress Press 2008)
Almighty God, in your love you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The icon of St Nicholas of Myra was written by Helen McIldowie-Jenkins and is reproduced here with her generous permission.