The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker
Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, Holy Hierarch
Born 3rd Century, Patara
Died 6 December 343, Myra
Venerated in "All Christianity"
Major shrine St. Nicholas’s relics are held in a crypt in Bari, Italy, but his great work was done in Myra.
Feast December 6
Attributes St Nicholas is usually portrayed as a Bishop, in whatever manner is appropriate for a Bishop in that particular Church’s practices.
Patronage In the West, St. Nicholas is a patron of sailors and thieves, because his relics were stolen by sailors from his tomb and transported to Bari, Italy. In the East, he is more remembered for his defense against the Arian heresy.
An example of the Faith and a life of humility,

as a teacher of abstinence you did inspire and lead your flock,
and through the truthfulness of your deeds
were exalted by greatness;
through your humility uplifting all
and by poverty gaining wealth.
Father and Hierarch St. Nicholas,
intercede with Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.

Greek Orthodox Apolytikion

Saint Nicholas, also known as Nikolaus in Germany and Sinterklaas (a contracted form of Sint Nicolaas) in the Netherlands and Flanders, is the common name for the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, who lived in 4th century Byzantine Anatolia, (now in modern Turkey) and had a reputation for secret gift-giving. This is as much as is generally known about him in the West. Among Orthodox Christians, he is remembered with more reverence and less frivolity.


Nicholas the clergyman

Nicholas of Myra (also Nikolaus) in Lycia, Asia Minor, (lived c. 270 - 345/352) was a 4th century bishop and is a Christian saint. His feast day is December 6, presumably the date of his death. In the Netherlands 5 december is known as his feast: this is Sinterklaasavond, or St. Nicholas' Eve. Among Christians, he is also known as the "Wonderworker". Several acts of kindness and miracles are attributed to him. Historical accounts often confuse him with the later Nicholas of Sion .

The origin of Santa Claus is in St. Nicholas. He was born in Asia Minor at Patara in the province of Lycia, at a time when the region was entirely Greek in origin. The region lost its Greek presence only recently during the forced expulsion of millions of Greeks and the murder of hundreds of thousands at the hands of the Turks during the mostly unknown Asia Minor disaster of the early 20th century. In Lycia St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra during the 4th century. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. He is said to have been born to relatively affluent Christian parents in Patara, Lycia, Asia Minor, Roman Empire where he also received his early schooling. He came to Myra to continue his studies. A paternal uncle of his introduced him to the local bishop. The latter is said to have seen potential to the youth and took Nicholas under his patronage. Nicholas received his ordination as a priest at an early age. When his parents died Nicholas still received his inheritance but is said to have given it away in charity.

Nicholas' early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the reign of co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian (reigned 284 - 305) and Maximian (reigned 286 - 305) from which comes the estimation of his age. Diocletian issued an edict in 303 authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. Following the abdication of the two Emperors on May 1, 305 the policies of their successors towards Christians were different. In the Western part of the Empire Constantius Chlorus (reigned 305 - 306) put an end to the systematic persecution upon receiving the throne. In the Eastern part Galerius (reigned 305 - 311) continued the persecution until 311 when he issued a general edict of toleration from his deathbed. The prosecution of 303 - 311 is considered to be the longest in the history of the Empire. Nicholas survived this period although his activities at the time are uncertain.

Following Galerius' death his surviving co-ruler Licinius (reigned 307 - 324) mostly tolerated Christians. As a result their community was allowed to further develop, and the various bishops who acted as their leaders managed to concetrate religious, social and political influence as well as wealth in their hands. In many cases they acted as the heads of their respective cities. It is apparently in this period that Nicholas rose to become bishop of Myra. Judging from tradition he was probably well-loved and respected in his area mostly as a result of his charitable activities. As with other bishops of the time, Nicholas' popularity would serve to ensure his position and influence during and after this period.

The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to him, among them one temple of Artemis (also known as Diana). Because the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas' feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.

Nicholas is also known for coming to the defense of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his prayers on behalf of sailors and other travelers. The popular veneration of Nicholas as a saint seems to have started relatively early. Justinian I, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 527 - 565) is reported to have built a temple (i.e. a church building) in Nicholas's honor in Constantinople, the Roman capital of the time.

Bishop Nicholas at the First Ecumenical Council

In 324 Licinius was defeated in a war against his Western co-ruler Constantine I of the Roman Empire (reigned 306 - 337). The end of the war found the Roman Empire unified under the rule of Constantine. In place of tolerance his policies towards Christians consisted of active support. Under his patronage the Christian church experienced an age of prosperity. But the relative peace of his reign brought to the forefront the internal conflict within contemporary Christianity. One of the apparent main reasons of this conflict was the failure to agree to a commonly accepted concept about God in general and Jesus in particular. At this times the teachings of Arius in Alexandria, Egypt were gaining popular support but also attracting great opposition. They would form the basis of Arianism. Emerging fanaticism in both opposing factions only resulted in spreading tumult across the Empire.

Deciding to address the problem as a matter of the state, Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea which also was the first Ecumenical council in 325. The number of attendants at the council is uncertain with Eusebius of Caesarea reporting as few as 250 and Athanasius of Alexandria as many as 318. In any case Nicholas is usually counted among them and was noted as an opponent of Arianism.

A later writer claimed that after Arius had presented his case against Jesus' divinity to the Council, Nicholas hit Arius in the face out of indignation. Nicholas was kicked out of the Council for this offense, and supposedly jailed as well. However, according to this account, that night the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to many of the bishops of the Council, telling them to forgive Nicholas, for he had done it out of love for her Son. Supposedly they released Nicholas and allowed him back into the process the next day.

The council lasted from May 20 to June 19, 325 and resulted in the declaration of the Nicene Creed and the formal condemnation of Arianism. The books of Arius and his followers were condemned to be burned but the execution of this decision was left at the hands of each bishop for their respective territories. To what point this decision was followed remains uncertain.

Following this apparent victory to his faction Nicholas returned to Myra. He is applauded by later Christian writers for keeping Myra free of Arianism. But the decisions of the council failed to stop the spread of Arianism. In fact the tides soon turned and in his later years Arianism managed to win favor with Constantine. In fact Constantine was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian bishop who had also attended the council, shortly before his death on May 22, 337. Constantine was succeeded by his three surviving sons: Constantine II of the Roman Empire (reigned 337 - 340), Constantius II (reigned 337 - 361) and Constans (reigned 337 - 350). Constantius originally received the Eastern part of the Empire but the death of his brothers left the entire Empire under his control. During his reign he strongly favored Arianism by seeking to place Arian bishops in most positions. There is no indication that Nicholas was affected by these policies and he remained in his position till his death. This lack of disturbance by the Arian Emperor has been seen as indicating the strong support Nicholas had gained among the people of his territory. According to this reasoning not even Constantius would risk a possible revolt by removing a popular bishop.

Abduction of his relics

On August 26, 1071 Romanus IV, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 1068 - 1071) faced Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks (reigned 1059 - 1072) in the Battle of Manzikert. The battle ended in humiliating defeat and capture for Romanus. As a result the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor to the invading Seljuk Turks. It would regain its control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus, (reigned 1081 - 1118). But early in his reign Myra was overtaken by the Islamic invaders. Taking advantage of the confusion sailors from Bari, Italy seized the remains of the saint over the objections of the Orthodox monks then caring for them. Returning to Bari they brought the remains with them. The remains arrived on May 9, 1087. Some observers have reported seeing myrrh exude from these relics.

Formal veneration of the saint

Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favorite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbors. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea", often described by modern Greek scholars as more or less a christianized version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognizable saints and December 6 finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all of Greece.

In addition, he is celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European countries. His reputation for gift giving comes partly from a story of three young women who were too poor to afford a dowry for their marriages: as each reached a marriageable age, Nicholas surreptitiously threw a bag of gold into the house at night. Some versions of the legend say that the girls' father, trying to discover their benefactor, kept watch on the third occasion, but Nicholas dropped the third bag down the chimney instead. For his helping the "financially challenged", St. Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop are symbolic of the three sacks of gold. People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas. It should be noted perhaps that a nearly identical story is attributed by Greek folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is also considered a time of exchanging gifts.

Due to modern association with Christmas, Saint Nicholas is a patron saint of Christmas, as well as pawnbrokers (see above). He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Eastern Roman Emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.

Saint Nicholas the festive gift-giver

Saint Nicholas Day is a festivity for children in much of Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American and British Santa Claus derives from this festivity, the name 'Santa Claus' being a degeneration of the Dutch word Sinterklaas.

Some elements of this part of the Saint Nicholas tradition could be traced back to the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). The appearance is similar to some portrayals of this god. In the Saint Nicholas tradition in the Netherlands he rides a horse over the rooftops, and this may be derived from Odin's riding through the sky. Also his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten ('Black Peters') may be a remnant of the raven that accompanied Wodan. It may also reference African slaves.

The history of the festive Saint Nicholas celebration is complex and reflects conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a canonized saint, Martin Luther replaced the festival that had become associated with the Papacy with a "Christkind" (Christ child) celebration on Christmas Eve. The Nicholas celebrations still remain a part of tradition among many Protestants, albeit on a much lower scale than Christmas. The Protestant Netherlands, however, retain a much larger Saint Nicholas tradition. Many Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted Luther's Christkind.

Celebration in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia

In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot, called Nikolaus-Stiefel, outside their front doors on the night of December 5 to December 6. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good. If they were not, they will have charcoal in their boots instead. Sometimes a disguised Nikolaus also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they "have been good" (sometimes ostensibly checking a book for their record), handing out presents on a per-behavior basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.

But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat, or sometimes actually eat the children for misbehavior. In Switzerland, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the Black Forest. In other accounts he would throw the sack into the river, drowning the naughty children within. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries such as Austria. In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behavior and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten them with rod-beatings. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, whom local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them, even occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Mikulᚠis often also accompanied by an angel who acts as a counterbalance to the ominous Knecht Ruprecht (čert).

Celebration in the Netherlands

For small children in the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' eve is much more important than Christmas. In recent years, some Dutch have started to celebrate Christmas Eve with Santa as well or instead.

On the evening of December 5, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child that has been good in the past year (in practice to all children). Sinterklaas wears a red bishop's dress including a red mitre, rides a white horse over the rooftops and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with soot black faces and colorful Moorish dresses, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'zwarte Pieten' (black Petes).

Sinterklaas has a long white beard, holds a long gold coloured staff with a fancy curled top in his hand and carries a big book with all the children's names in it, and whether they have been good or bad.

Each year Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat 'from Spain', and is then paraded through the streets of the town he arrives in (actually in every town of the Netherlands), welcomed by cheering and singing children. His zwarte Pieten throw candy and small, round gingerbread like cookies (Pepernoten) into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas also visits schools, hospitals and shopping malls. His arrival is televised on public television. Over the years media attention has grown, while Sinterklaas is in the country the 'Sinterklaasjournaal' is aired every day, discussing his activities and any major 'problems' (which occur every year). Also, on the main day of celebration (traditionally December 5th) the Dutch version of Sesame Street the inhabitants of Sesame Street are visited by Sinterklaas as well.

Traditionally, in the weeks before the 5th of December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to chimney of the coal fired stove or fireplace, with a carrot or some hay in it 'for Sinterklaas' horse', and will find some candy in the form of a chocolate, marzipan frog in their shoes the next day, supposedly thrown down the chimney by a Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas himself.
However, with the advance of central heating children will put their shoes near the boiler or even just next to the front door....
Children are told that Black Peter enters the house through the chimney, which also explained his black face and hands, and would leave a bundle of sticks or a small bag with salt in the shoe instead of candy when the child had been bad. In recent years some people have engaged in a recurring debate about racial, sexist or other discriminative aspects of the black Peter character: the Peter character is obviously inspired by black slaves. The usual reply is that his face is black of soot. Some have actually gone so far as to replace black Peter by "green Peter" (a man in a Moorish dress with a green face).

Children are also told that in the worst case they would be put in the gunny bag that black Peter carries the presents in, and would be taken back to Madrid in Spain, where Sinterklaas spends the rest of the year. This practice however has been condemned by Sinterklaas, in his more recent television appearances, as something of the past.

'Sinterklaasavond' or 'Pakjesavond' is usually celebrated on December 5th, and by some on December 6th, children at home sing Sinterklaas songs and suddenly somebody will knock on the door very loudly, and when they go to the door a gunny sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively - some improvisation is often called for - the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the bag with presents is 'found' there. Some parents manage to 'convince' Sinterklaas to come to their home personally.

Typical presents include the first letter of the child's name made out of chocolate, a figurine of Sinterklaas made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminum foil, coloured marzipan shaped into fruit, an animal or some other object. These presents are often accompanied by a simple poem, saying something about the child or with a hint to the nature of the present. Also popular are coins and cigarettes made out of chocolate. However, the European Parliament has issued a recommendation to ban chocolate cigarettes since they might promote future real smoking.


The children, up to an age of usually seven or eight years, almost religiously believe in Sinterklaas. They think that he actually lives forever and that he comes from Spain, that he knows everything about the children and that his zwarte Pieten do come down through chimneys. The period between his arrival and December 5 is therefore very exciting.

When children ask their parents how it is possible that Sinterklaas is at so many places, they tell them that those are assistant Sinterklazen. At family gatherings where a stand in Sinterklaas in a rented suit appears, parents have reported in advance to this Sinterklaas what the children have done good and bad and make it look like he knows everything about the children when the 'Goedheiligman' ('Good Holy Man') looks in his big book.

Most children do suspect that Sinterklaas may not truly exist. The atmosphere during celebrations can be very enchanting though, and many children really want to believe. Also, most children can't think of a reason why their parents would lie to them.

For some children, gradually losing their magic view of the world as they grow older and getting more and more suspicious about what their parents are telling them, it still may be their first big traumatic experience in life when their parents admit that Sinterklaas does not really exist....
Therefore some parents tell their children from the start that all this Sinterklaas is just a fantasy, a game that people play, as they consider it an inappropriately bad example about telling the truth. Others, looking back on their own experience with Sinterklaas as a child, consider that the enjoyment for the children get is greater than a small(?) discomfort.

Dutch media, especially television stations, abide by a kind of informal rule never to deny Sinterklaas's existence, or at least not in programs broadcast before children's bedtime.

Celebration in Belgium

Originally Sinterklaas or Sint-Nikolaas was only celebrated in Flanders and the Netherlands the way described above, but now he is celebrated in Wallonia in the same way. The celebrating of Saint-Nicholas is mostly the same as in the Netherlands but there are some small differences.

  • Three weeks before the sixth of December he arrives with his boat from Spain in Antwerp (being even a topic in the evening news).
  • Most important difference, In Belgium the children receive their presents on the 6th of December. Children have to put their shoes at the stove the evening of the 5th of December and the next morning, they find their presents.

Note that Saint Nicholas has been celebrated in Belgium for centuries -there is even a city called St. Niklaas but, like every folkloristic thing in Belgium, there might be small differences, and generally in the east part of the Province East-Flanders Saint Nicholas is not celebrated but children receive presents from Sint Maarten (Saint Martin).

Other celebrations

See Santa Claus for information about St. Nicholas in English speaking countries. See Christmas around the world for other information.

See also

External links

  • St. Nicholas of Myra
  • A timeline of St. Nicholas's life and legend
  • Santa Claus Sparks Debate in His Hometown "A Turkish mayor Monday defended a decision to remove a bronze statue of his town's most famous son, Saint Nicholas, and replace it with a brightly colored model of his modern incarnation, Santa Claus... The legend of Santa Claus, or Noel Baba in Turkish, is said to have started in Demre when Bishop Nicholas gave anonymous gifts to village girls who lacked dowries by dropping bags of coins down their chimneys, thus giving them the chance to marry."

Last updated: 08-31-2005 18:32:34