Saint Nicholas - Who is the Real Santa Claus? The Greek Orthodox Church and Her Saints

Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas

How did the good and generous, Christian Saint, the good Bishop Nicholas, become the Christmas Santa Claus, all dressed up in a Father Christmas outfit?

Read on and I shall tell you the tale.

Saint Nicholas, was born a Greek, on the fifteenth of March 270, in Patara in Lycia, and

 died, on the sixth of December 343, which is now celebrated as the feast day of Saint Nicholas.

He was born to wealthy Christian parents and was deeply religious from an early age.

How he became Bishop of Myra (Modern day Demre, Turkey) is unusual.

After the death of the former bishop, during the conclave to choose the new bishop, one of the group heard a voice, telling him to watch the doors of the church the next morning.

The first person to enter the church, named Nicholas, was to be the next bishop.

What do you know? The first person through the church doors the next morning  was today's Saint Nicholas and  was consequently ordained  Bishop of Myra.

Church Of Saint Nicholas Myra
Church Of Saint Nicholas Myra

After his death, Saint Nicholas was buried at Myra, owing to his reputation as a  kind and generous man, and remembering the miracles he had performed, pilgrims from all over the world flocked to his tomb.

When Myra was defeated by the Turks, his relics were removed, for fear of them being destroyed, to Italy.

Half went to Bari in 1087.

Church Of Saint Nicholas, Bari, Italy
Church Of Saint Nicholas.
Bari, Italy

The other half  Saint Nicholas'  relics were taken to Venice in 1100.

Church of Saint Nicholas, Venice, Italy
Church of Saint Nicholas.
 Venice, Italy

It's said, in Myra, the relics of Saint Nicholas, gave off a clear, watery liquid, smelling of rose water which the faithful believed to possess miraculous powers.

After the relics were moved to Bari, they continued to exude this myrrh, and vials of this have been taken all over the world and can still be obtained at the Church Of Saint Nicholas, Bari.

An Irish tradition states:

  The relics of Saint Nicholas were stolen from Myra by Norman crusader knights and are buried near Thomas Town, Kilkenny, where a stone slab marks the spot believed to be his grave.

Stone slab in Thomas Town, Kilkenny, Ireland. Believed to be the tomb of Saint Nicholas.
Stone slab in Thomas Town, Kilkenny, Ireland.
Believed to be the tomb of Saint Nicholas.

In 1993 a grave was discovered on the small Turkish Island of Gemile, which, historians believe to be, the original tomb of Saint Nicholas, it seems it's not only a case of who is the real Father Christmas, but also, which is his real grave!

The image of Saint Nicholas, is found more often on Byzantine seals than of any other Saint, and, in the Middle Ages, over two thirds of churches were dedicated to Saint Nicholas in England alone.

Saint Nicholas has been represented by Christian artists, more than any other Saint.

Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas

 In the East Saint Nicholas is known as the Patron Saint Of Sailors.

Saint Nicholas. Patron Saint Of Sailors
Saint Nicholas
Patron Saint Of Sailors

In the West he is known as the Patron Saint Of Children.

Saint Nicholas. Patron Saint Of Children
Saint Nicholas.
Patron Saint Of Children

Patron Saint of sailors is due to the legend, that, in his life time, he appeared to sailors on the stormy seas of Lycia and the Aegean and brought them safely to port.

Sailors in the Aegean and Ionian seas had their "Star of Nicholas" and wished each other a good journey by saying:

"May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller"

The second, as Patron Saint of children, is due to the rather macabre story of Saint Nicholas visiting an inn and discovering that the proprietor had killed three children and boiled them, to be eaten as meat, by his customers.

Saint Nicholas brings the 'boiled children' back to life with his prayers
Saint Nicholas brings the 'boiled children' back to life with his prayers

The boiled children, the poor little darlings, were kept in a barrel in the cellar, where upon being discovered by Saint Nicholas, were brought back to life by his prayers for them.

Another well-known story is how, on hearing, about a poor man with three daughters, who didn't have the means to provide a dowry for them, Saint Nicholas, secretly threw three bags of gold coins through their window, to cover their dowries.

This story explains the tradition of popping chocolate "Gold coins" into children's Christmas stockings.

Saint Nicholas, secretly throwing gold, through the window of the three maidens.
Saint Nicholas, secretly throwing gold, through
the window of the three maidens.

Saint Nicholas' reputation for generosity was boundless, his giving of gifts was usually done secretly, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.

  Here's where the tradition of hanging up a stocking on Christmas Eve came from; shoes or socks, we're on the right body part anyway!

Shoes, left out, waiting for gifts from Saint Nicholas
Shoes left out, waiting for gifts from Saint Nicholas

Through his generosity Saint Nicholas became a model for today's Santa Claus (A corruption of the name Saint Nicholas)

For his generosity and performing of miracles he is known as:
"The Wonder Worker"

Santa Claus
Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas was further transformed into today's Santa Claus, with the poem by Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of biblical studies.

 This poem has been attributed to other writers, whoever wrote it though, it has had a great influence on how we picture Saint Nicholas today.

 "A visit from Saint Nicholas"

(Also known as "Twas the night before Christmas")

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .

An icon or painting of Saint Nicholas can be recognized by seven symbols:

The seven symbols of Saint Nicholas
The seven symbols of Saint Nicholas

1. A mitre, a pointed hat, worn by a bishop

2. A crozier, the hooked staff, carried by a bishop

3. Three gold balls, or sometimes, coins, representing the three bags of gold, given for the dowries.

4. Three maidens, the three daughters, given the dowries.

5. Three children in a tub, representing the three saved children.

6. A ship or an anchor, for his patronage of sailors

7. A book, The Holy Scriptures.

Images of Saint Nicholas, usually show him with either all seven symbols, or four of the symbols.

Icon Showing Saint Nicholas,  with four of his seven symbols
Icon Showing Saint Nicholas,
 with four of his seven symbols

Above shows Saint Nick with four of his symbols:

 The mitre, the crozier, the three children in a tub and a ship.

Here he is, below, with all seven symbols.

 Image of Saint Nicholas with his seven symols
Image of Saint Nicholas with his seven symbols

Saint Nicholas is Patron Saint of Greece, Apuli (Italy), Sicily, Naples, Loraine (France) Switzerland and Norway (together with St.Olaf), in fact, he's so popular, he's Patron Saint of far too many things to mention!

Here, in Loutraki, we have two churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas, one is the beautiful tiny church of Saint Nicholas, located on the shores of Vouliagmeni Lake, close by to the amazing ancient ruins of The ancient sanctuary of Heraion of Perachora

Church of Saint Nicholas Vouligmeni Lake Loutraki, Greece
Church of Saint Nicholas
Vouligmeni Lake
Loutraki, Greece

The second church, in the Loutraki area, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, is the church of Saint Nicholas the Younger, located in the Melagari region, also near Perachora, it's  the oldest Byzantine monument in the area, built in the tenth or eleventh century.

 Experts have described its amazing wall paintings as historic treasures of  great value.

  On the sixth of December, Saint Nicholas's Feast Day, or Name Day as it's referred to in Greece,  a local tradition is followed, where bulgar, or cracked wheat, is boiled and eaten.

Curch of Saint Nicholas the Younder Melagari, Perahora, Loutraki Greece
Curch of Saint Nicholas the Younger
Melagari, Perahora, Loutraki

The wheat symbolizes the grain that Saint Nicholas provided for the poor, during famine, when he always showed concern for the poor and the hungry.

Before it's boiled, a plate of wheat is blessed by the priest, then popped into the pot along with the rest of the wheat.

By the time the church service is over, the wheat is cooked and is ready to be shared by the congregation.

The boiling of the cracked wheat
 Boiling  cracked wheat on the Feast os Saint Nicholas

Here in Greece, it's not Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), who delivers gifts at Christmas on 25th December (Which in Greece is the celebration of Christos, Christ, celebrating his birth) it's Saint Basil (or Vasilis) who visits with his sack of gifts on 31st December, New Year's Eve.

When my children were younger, they had the best of both worlds, MGG (My Greek God) and I, celebrated the English Christmas, having Santa Claus bring gifts on the twenty fifth of December, and again on New Year's Eve with MGG's family and Greek friends.

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