The veneration with which this saint has been honoured in both East and West, the number of altars and churches erected in his memory, and the countless stories associated with his name all bear witness to something extraordinary. 


Yet the one fact concerning the life of Nicholas of which we can be absolutely certain is that he was bishop of Myra in the fourth century.  According to tradition, he was born at Patara, Lycia, a province of southern Asia Minor where St. Paul had planted the faith.  

  • Bulgaria 1976.  The apostle St. Paul. 
    Scott # 2361.
The accounts of Nicholas given us by the Greek Church all say that he was imprisoned in the reign of Diocletian, whose persecutions, while they lasted, were waged with great severity.  Some twenty years after this he appeared at the Council of Nicaea, to join in the condemnation of Arianism.  We are also informed that he died at Myra on 6th December, 352, and was buried in his cathedral.  His feast day is 6th December.   

Such a wealth of literature has accumulated around Nicholas that it is justified giving a brief account of some of the popular traditions, which in the main date from medieval times.  St. Methodius, patriarch of Constantinople towards the middle of the ninth century, wrote a life of the saint in which he declares that "up to the present the life of the distinguished shepherd has been unknown to the majority of the faithful."  

Nearly five hundred years had passed since the death of the good St. Nicholas, and Methodius' account, therefore, had to be based more on legend than actual fact.

  • Bulgaria 1969.  Cyril and Methodius.  Wall painting in Troian Monastery by the Bulgarian painter Zacharij Zograf.  Scott # 1754.

He was very well brought up, we are told, by pious and virtuous parents, who set him to studying the sacred books at the age of five.  His parents died while he was still young, leaving him with a comfortable fortune, which he resolved to use for works of charity.  
  • Monaco 1996.
    Scott # 1999a

Soon an opportunity came.  A citizen of Patara had lost all his money and his three daughters could not find husbands because of their poverty.  In despair their wretched father was about to commit them to a life of shame.  When Nicholas heard of this, he took a bag of gold and at night tossed it through an open window of the man's house.  Here was a dowry for the eldest girl, and she was quickly married.  Nicholas did the same for the second and then for the third daughter.  On the last occasion the father was watching by the window, and overwhelmed his young benefactor with gratitude. 

It happened that Nicholas was in the city of Myra when the clergy and people were meeting together to elect a new bishop, and God directed them to choose him.  This was at the time of Diocletian's persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century.  The Greek writers go on to say that now, as leader, "the divine Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with other Christians. 

But when the great and religious Constantine, chosen by God, assumed the imperial diadem of the Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with them the illustrious Nicholas."  
  • Greece 1968.  Emperors Constantine and Justinian at prayer in the Haga Sophia Cathedral, Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).  Scott # 922.

The traditions all agree that Nicholas was buried in his episcopal city of Myra.  By the time of Justinian, some two centuries later, his feast was celebrated and there was a church built over his tomb.  The ruins of this domed basilica, which stood in the plain where the city was built, were excavated in the nineteenth century. The tremendous popularity of the saint is indicated by an anonymous writer of the tenth century who declares: "The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him.  Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the farthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are erected in his honour." 

In 1034 Myra was taken by the Saracens.  Several Italian cities made plans to get possession of the relics of the famous Nicholas. Finally, in 1087, the citizens of Bari carried them off from the lawful Greek custodians and their Moslem masters.  A new church was quickly built at Bari and Pope Urban II was present at the enshrining of the relics.  Devotion to St. Nicholas now increased and many miracles were attributed to his intercession.  
  • Italy 1989. The Crypt of Bari Cathedral, Basilica di San Nicola, Italy. 
  • Italy 1950. Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, and the vessel sailing the relics of St. Nicholas from the Moslem masters to Bari.  Scott # 542.
The image of St. Nicholas appeared often on Byzantine seals.  Artists painted him usually with the three boys in a tub or else tossing a bag of gold through a window.  In the West he has often been invoked by prisoners, and in the East by sailors.  One legend has it that during his life-time he appeared off the coast of Lycia to some storm-tossed mariners who invoked his aid, and he brought them safely to port. Sailors in the Aegean and Ionian seas had their "star of St. Nicholas" and wished one another safe voyages with the words, "May St. Nicholas hold the tiller." 
  • Bulgaria 1977.  St. Nicholas. Frescoe at Nessebur Monastery, 13th century.  Scott # 2411.
From the legend of the three boys may have come the tradition of his love for children, celebrated in both secular and religious observances.  In many places there was once a year a ceremonious installation of a "boy bishop." In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands gifts were bestowed on children at Christmas time in St. Nicholas' name.  The Dutch Protestant settlers of New Amsterdam made the custom popular in America, and the eastern saint was converted into the Nordic magician (Saint Nicholas -- Sinterklaas -- Santa Claus).  
  • France 1951.  St. Nicholas, with three children below left.  From Musée National de l'Imagerie Francaise.  Scott # 657. 

His popularity was greatest of all in Russia, where he and St. Andrew were joint national patrons.  There was not a church that did not have some sort of shrine in honor of St. Nicholas and the Russian Orthodox Church observes even the feast of the translation of his relics.  So many Russian pilgrims came to Bari in Czarist times that the Russian government maintained a church, a hospital, and a hospice there.  St. Nicholas is also patron of Greece, Apulia, Sicily, and Lorraine, of many cities and dioceses.  At Rome the basilica of St. Nicholas was founded as early as the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh century.  In the later Middle Ages four hundred churches were dedicated to him in England alone.  

St. Nicholas' emblems are children, a mitre, a vessel.  The mitre and the children are shown on the above French stamp, and the vessel appears on the Italian stamp.  Further, the children appear on the below Dutch stamp.

Many thanks to Mr. Tony Clayton (Great Britain) for all help and research on the Italian stamp.

As an addendum I would like to tell the Dutch legend about Sinterklaas, such as told by a Dutch collector friend.  

He arrives in Holland (and part of Belgium) by boat from Spain where he lives in Madrid in his palace, about 6 weeks before December 5th.  He comes with his "zwarte pieten" (Black Jack's) and brings presents with him which de zwarte pieten made during the year, in the toy factories of the palace.   "Pakjesavond" best translated as Gift's Evening is on December 5, when Sinterklaas or his Black Jack's visit the children and give them presents, if they behaved well that is, though nowadays it is told that bad children don't exist anymore.  

From the moment he arrives till December 5th one is allowed to place a shoe near the fireplace, or central heating anyway on a place where the Black Jack's can manage to come into the house, in the past this was the chimney, but in modern houses parents have to do some thinking ;-)  

The Black Jack's come by night and will fill the shoe with a little present, most of the time candy, like chocolate mice, pepernoten (ginger nuts) which we only see during Sinterklaas time, spiced biscuits or marzipan figures etc., these being the most typical for the season. 

  • The Netherlands 1961.  "Voor Het Kind".  Sinterklaas, with mitre on his white horse, and children greeting him.  Scott # B 358.

Sinterklaas has a white horse which can also ride on the roofs, and it is a custom to place some water or a carrot next to the shoe for the horse.  On December 6th he leaves again for Spain by boat.  


Published 1999. Revised  15 nov 2005 
Copyright © by Ann Mette Heindorff
All Rights Reserved

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