Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Wonder-Worker

The Life and the Legend of the Saint Who Became Santa Claus

Icon depicting St Nicholas, Puglia, Italy.
De Agostini Picture Library/E. Cozzolino/Getty Images

There are few saints better known than Saint Nicholas of Myra, and yet there is remarkably little that we can say for certain about his life. His birthdate is lost to history; even his birthplace (Parara of Lycia, in Asia Minor) is first recorded in the tenth century, though it was drawn from traditional legends and may be correct. (No one has ever suggested that Saint Nicholas was born anywhere else.)

Quick Facts

  • Feast Day: December 6
  • Type of Feast: Optional Memorial
  • Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Matthew 18:12-14
  • Dates: Unknown (Parara, Lycia, Asia Minor)-December 6, 345 (or 352) (Myria, Lycia)
  • Patron of: Children, mariners, pawnbrokers, merchants, bakers, travelers, the Byzantine Catholic Church
  • Canonization: By popular acclamation
  • Prayers: Invocation to Saint Nicholas; A Prayer of Impetration to Saint Nicholas

The Life of Saint Nicholas

What seems most certain is that, sometime after becoming Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas was imprisoned during the Christian persecution under the Roman Emperor Diocletian (245-313). When Constantine the Great became emperor and issued the Edict of Milan (313), extending official tolerance to Christianity, Saint Nicholas was released.

Defender of Orthodoxy

Tradition places him at the Council of Nicea (325), though the oldest lists of bishops in attendance do not include his name. It is said that, during one of the most heated moments of the council, he walked across the room to the heretic Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ, and slapped him in the face. Certainly, by all accounts, Saint Nicholas combined a firm orthodoxy with a gentleness toward those in his flock, and Arius's false teaching threatened the souls of Christians.

Saint Nicholas died on December 6, but accounts of the year of his death vary; the two most common dates are 345 and 352.

The Relics of Saint Nicholas

In 1087, while the Christians of Asia Minor were under assault by Muslims, Italian merchants obtained the relics of Saint Nicholas, which had been held in a church at Myra, and brought them to the city of Bari, in southern Italy. There, the relics were placed in a great basilica consecrated by Pope Urban II, where they have remained.

Saint Nicholas is called "Wonder-Worker" because of the number of miracles attributed to him, particularly after his death. Like all of those who earn the name "Wonder-Worker," Saint Nicholas lived a life of great charity, and the miracles after his death reflect that.

The Legend of Saint Nicholas

The traditional elements of the legend of Saint Nicholas include his becoming an orphan at a very young age. Though his family had been rich, Saint Nicholas decided to distribute all of his possessions to the poor and to dedicate himself to serving Christ. It is said that he would toss little pouches of coins through the windows of the poor, and that sometimes the pouches would land in stockings that had been washed and were hung on the windowsill to dry. Once, finding all the windows in a house shut, Saint Nicholas tossed the pouch up to the roof, where it went down the chimney.

The Miracle That Made Nicholas a Bishop

Saint Nicholas is said to have made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a young man, traveling by sea. When a storm arose, the sailors thought that they were doomed, but through Saint Nicholas's prayers, the waters were calmed. Returning to Myra, Saint Nicholas found that news of the miracle had already reached the city, and the bishops of Asia Minor chose him to replace the recently deceased bishop of Myra.

The Generosity of Nicholas

As bishop, Saint Nicholas remembered his own past as an orphan and held a special place in his heart for orphans (and all young children). He continued to give them small gifts and money (especially to the poor), and he provided dowries to three young women who could not afford to marry (and who were in danger, therefore, of entering into a life of prostitution).

Saint Nicholas Day, Past and Present

After Saint Nicholas's death, his fame continued to spread in both Eastern and Western Europe. Throughout Europe, there are many churches and even towns named after Saint Nicholas. By the late Middle Ages, Catholics in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands had begun to celebrate his feast day by giving small gifts to young children. On December 5, the children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, and the next morning, they would find small toys and coins in them.

In the East, after the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on his feast day, a member of the congregation dressed as Saint Nicholas would enter the church to bring children small gifts and to instruct them in the Faith. (In some areas in the West, this visit occurred on the evening of December 5, at the homes of children.)

In recent years in the United States, these customs (especially the placing of the shoes by the fireplace) have been revived. Such practices are a very good way of reminding our children of the life of this beloved saint, and encouraging them to imitate his charity, as Christmas approaches.

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Your Citation
Richert, Scott P. "Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Wonder-Worker." Learn Religions, Sep. 9, 2021, Richert, Scott P. (2021, September 9). Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Wonder-Worker. Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Wonder-Worker." Learn Religions. (accessed June 10, 2023).