Advent Resource: Feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6th

7 Dec

Icon of St. Nicholas by contemporary artist James Christensen

As most people know, our modern figure of Santa Claus had a real life inspiration in the 4th century saint, St. Nicholas of Myra. Myra, where he was born, was a busy port city on the Mediterranean Sea, helping to link Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Nicholas came from a wealthy family with parents who taught him to be generous to others, especially the poor and needy. He later came to be ordained a priest. Then one morning, after the bishop of Myra had died, many local people were gathered praying in the village church for a sign to help them discern who should be the next bishop. Divine inspiration told them that the next priest to enter the church should be ordained . This was Nicholas, who became bishop by popular acclamation, as was the custom of the times. Many stories are told of St. Nicholas’ holiness and generosity, including miracles he is said to have performed.

The Story of the Three Impoverished Daughters

One such story depicting the generosity of St. Nicholas concerns a rich man in Myra who had lost all of his money when his business failed. This man had three lovely daughters who all wished to get married. Unfortunately, the father had no money to offer as a dowry.  Without a dowry, the daughters were doomed to be lifelong spinsters, or even worse, subject to being sold into slavery.

The father felt that he was a failure. Desperate to provide food for his family, the man decided to sell one of his daughters into slavery, hoping that they other two would survive.

 

The night before his first daughter was to be sold, St. Nicholas took a small bag of gold into his hand. Then after quietly approaching their house in the darkness, tossed the gold into the house through an open window, and then quickly vanished.

The next day, the father found the bag of gold which had fallen into one of his stockings* hanging next to his bed. He had no idea where it came from. At first he thought that it must be counterfeit, but once he tested it and found out that it really was gold, he set about pondering which of his friends or relatives could have done such a thing. He decided that none of them could have possibly have given this to him.

The poor man fell to his knees and great tears came to his eyes. He thanked God for this beautiful gift. His spirit rose again to new heights of gladness as he quickly set to arranging a wedding for his first daughter. As it turns out, there was enough money not only for her dowry, but for he and the rest of his family to live for a year. But he often wondered who had given them the gold!

After a year had gone by, the father once again found himself broke. Desperate and distraught, he decided that his second daughter must be sold into slavery. Once again, Nicholas, upon hearing of the father’s plight, once again came to the house by night and tossed in another bag of gold. The next morning, the father rejoiced and thanked God as he once again found the gold. The father also begged God’s forgiveness for losing hope. But he was once again left to ponder what mysterious stranger gave him such a gift?

The man kept a vigil by the window for many nights after this, hoping to catch his benefactor, but to no avail. And so he arranged another joyous wedding for his second daughter. Once again, after a year, his money ran out and he found he and his last daughter in poverty.  In the dead of one night, the father heard steps outside of his house and a bag of gold being tossed through the window. He quickly rushed out to see who had thrown it there and discovered the saintly bishop walking away in the dark. After catching up with St. Nicholas, he recognized who his benefactor had been all along.

“Why did you give me this gold?” the father asked?

“Because you needed it,” answered Nicholas.

With tears in his eyes, the father embraced the bishop and thanked him. But he asked, “Why did you not tell us who you were?” “Because it is good to give  and have God alone know about it.”

*This lovely story seems to be the origin of putting stockings out to be filled with goodies and toys, be it on Christmas and/or the feast of St. Nicholas. Also, some versions of the story tell of the gold landing in shoes instead, which explains why many put shoes out instead.

The Legend of St. Nicholas and the Evil Butcher

There is a story, or rather legend, that is told about St. Nicholas, helps to explain why he has traditionally been viewed as the patron saint of children. The story of “The Evil Butcher” can be found in several forms, but the most intriguing is the story as it is popularly told in France. This version, dating apparently from the middle ages, is rather gruesome, sounding an awful lot like one found in a collection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Below is a short form of this story that I found:

Nicholas Saving 3 Children from the Evil Butcher

Three little children sought the plain
Gleaners of the golden grain.
They lingered past the angel-song,
And dewy shadows swept along.

‘Mid the silence of the wood
The butcher’s lonely cottage stood,
“Butcher! lodge us for the night,
Lodge us till the morning light.”
“Enter in, ye children small,
I can find a place for all.”

The butcher seized a knife straitway,
And did the little creatures slay.
He put them in a tub of brine,
In pieces small as they were swine.

St. Nicholas, at seven years end,
His way did to the forest wend.
He sought the butcher’s cottage drear:
“Butcher! I would rest me here!”

“Enter! enter, St. Nicholas!
You are welcome, St. Nicholas!
Enter! enter, St. Nicholas!
There’s place for you the night to pass.”
Scarce had the Saint his entrance made,
He would the supper board was laid.

“Will you have of ham a slice?”
“I will not, for it is not nice!”
“Of this veal you’ll take a bit?”
“No! I do not relish it.”

“Give me of the little swine,
For seven long years have laid in brine!”
The butcher caught the words he said,
And forthwith from the portal fled.

“Butcher! butcher! do not flee,
Repent and God will pardon thee!”

St. Nicholas the tub drew near,
And lo! he placed three fingers there.
The first one said, “I sweetly rest!”
The second said, “I too am blest!”
The third replied, “Tis well with me,
In Paradise I seem to be!”

*freely translated from the French by English poet James Henry Dixon (1803–1876)

 

There are dozens of other fascinating stories and legends surrounding the figure of St. Nicholas, many of them truly inspiring. Always they are delightful to read. I would invite and urge you to spend some time at the links and sites available on the internet. Like me, once you begin to do so, you’ll surely find yourself fall in love with St. Nicholas all over again!

The most comprehensive internet site is most certainly one called The St. Nicholas Center. There you will find a massive collection of information about St. Nicholaus, including: historical information and primary documents; stories and customs about St. Nicholas from around the world; online copies of illustrated children’s books; a large collection of religious icons and paintings of St. Nicholas and his life; and dozens of resources for celebrating and teaching about St. Nicholas. And this just scratches the surface! It would take weeks to make your way through everything there.  I certainly plan on returning there often during the remainder of this Advent season.

Here are a few quick links from the St. Nicholas Center that I found intriguing, and I bet you will, too:

  • Because of how large the site is, start at the site map page found here:   http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=23 . The site is so large and detailed, unless you go to this page, I find that you’ll run the risk of missing much of the fun it offers, especially if you were to rely solely on the side panels for navigation.
  • A large collection of stories, legends and miracle accounts surrounding the life of  St. Nicholas can be found here, including The Golden Legend: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=911 .  Many of these are lavishly illustrated, and some are interactive.
  • The Life of St. Nicholas shown in paintings, icons, and frescoes from around the world is found here:    http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=913
  • For an interactive page for discovering how the feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated with different customs around the world. Almost three dozen different countries are represented. Go here:    http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=76
  • A collection of online stories, activities, and games for children can be found here:  http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=166
  • An wonderful collection of articles and prayers to enhance your celebration of this great saint can be found here  http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=120 and here http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=1 . One of the articles found there that I especially like include a magical story by the well-known spiritual author Fr. Edward Hayes called The Pay-less Shoe Gift Shop & Hobbit Gifts. Another article I found was a reflection by Orthodox Christian and peace activist Jim Forest on St. Nicholas and the death penalty  called A Saint Who Stopped an Execution.” Once you go there, I’m sure that you’ll find others that appeal to your interests and spiritual needs.

    Banner for St.NicholasCenter.Org (Click me!)


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4 Responses to “Advent Resource: Feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6th”

  1. Francesca December 7, 2010 at 6:37 am #

    What a lovely read this morning. I feel like I’m taking a Christmas class from Tom Webber. Thank you sir.

    • texastom46 December 7, 2010 at 10:52 pm #

      Frannie and Bill — Thank you both for taking time to visit. I have to confess that I was unaware that there were so, so many stories (real and legendary) associated with St. Nicholas; and a lot of it even inspiring!

  2. Bill Pelrine December 7, 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    Very nice, Tom. I am inspired and I learned stuff I didn’t know . . . what could be better!

    • texastom46 December 7, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

      Bill — see comment above this. I addressed it to both of you.

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