Father, hear our prayers for mercy, and by the help of Saint Nicholas keep us safe from all danger, and guide us on the way of salvation. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
He is undoubtedly one of the most popular saints honored in the Western world. Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Peter Damian called him the glory of young men, the honor of the elderly, the splendor of priests and the light of Pontiffs. In the United States, his memory has survived in the unique personality of Saint Claus — the jolly, rotund, white-bearded gentleman who captivates children with promises of gifts on Christmas Eve. Considered primarily as the patron saint of children, Nicholas is also invoked by sailors, merchants, bakers, travelers and pawnbrokers, and with Saint Andrew is honored as the co-patron of Russia.
St. Nicholas was born in the last years of the third century in Asia Minor. His uncle, the archbishop of Myra in Lycia, ordained him and appointed him abbot of a nearby monastery. At the death of the archbishop, Nicholas was chosen to fill the vacancy, and he served in this position until his death. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted the Christians, St. Nicholas was arrested, taken away from his home by the pagan soldiers, and thrown into a prison at the beginning of the fourth century. He suffered the hardships of hunger, thirst, loneliness, and chains. Released by Constantine the Great, he returned to his city, and he later attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died in Myra about 345.
Popular legends have involved Saint Nicholas in a number of charming stories, one of which relates Nicholas' charity. A man of Patara had lost his fortune, and finding himself unable to support his three maiden daughters, was planning to turn them into the streets as prostitutes. Nicholas heard of the man's intentions and secretly threw three bags of gold through a window into the home, thus providing dowries for the daughters. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. The three bags of gold are also said to be the origin of the three gold balls that form the emblem of pawnbrokers.
Saint Nicholas labored in his domains to stop the worship of false gods, still practiced there as elsewhere. With his own hands he cut down a huge tree, site of a sacrilegious cult of the goddess Diana. During a famine his prayers multiplied the provisions of wheat which he had ordered for the port of Myra, to such an extent that what would have sufficed for his people for only a few days, was found to be sufficient for more than two years. He rescued from death, just before they were hanged, three innocents condemned by a judge who had been corrupted by money, reprehended the latter for his crime and sent these liberated ones home, entirely exonerated.
After Nicholas' death on December 6, his body was buried in the cathedral at Myra. It remained there until 1087, when seamen of Bari, an Italian coastal town, seized the relics of the saint and transferred them to their own city.
By the year 1200 St. Nicholas had captured the hearts of all European nations. Many churches, towns, provinces and countries venerate him as their patron saint. Merchants, bankers, seamen and prisoners made him their patron, too. But his main patronage is the one over little children. Countless miracles were attributed to the saint's intercession. His relics are still preserved in the church of San Nicola in Bari; an oily substance, known as Manna di S. Nicola, which is highly valued for its medicinal powers, is said to flow from them.
The story of Saint Nicholas came to America in distorted fashion. The Dutch Protestants carried a popularized version of the saint's life to New Amsterdam, portraying Nicholas as nothing more than a Nordic magician and wonder-worker. Our present-day conception of Santa Claus has grown from this version.