St. NicholasSt. Nicholas is one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church and his feast day is December 6th. Traditionally, Catholics leave their shoes out on the eve of his feast day and find treats in them the next morning in the same manner as we look forward to Christmas presents from this Saint on Christmas morning.

Nicholas was born in the city of Patara in Lyrica, a port on the Mediterranean Sea in Asia Minor, about the middle of the third century. He was of Greek heritage and his parents, Epiphanius and Johanna (also known as Theophanes and Nonna) were devout Christians and wealthy. Nicholas was deeply attached to his faith as a child, only eating a single small portion in the evenings on Wednesdays and Fridays, which were days of penance at the time. His parents died from an epidemic while he was still young, so he went to live with an uncle, who was a bishop and also named Nicholas. His uncle raised him in the faith and later ordained him as a priest. Later, when the bishop of his district died, he was made Bishop of Myra. Nicholas became renowned for his extraordinary piety and zeal and performed many great miracles.

Nicholas was known for his generosity and his love for children. He gave freely of his wealth to the poor, widows, and orphans. He famously helped a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. Without a dowry, they would remain unmarried and probably would have to become prostitutes. Nicholas heard about this tragic situation and decided to help him, but through his modesty as well as discretion for the man’s situation, he went to his house at night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house. In some versions of the story, Nicholas does this on three separate occasions, and the man becomes curious after the first two occasions about the identity of the benefactor and tries to watch Nicholas in the act of giving the third time. Supposedly, Nicholas learned of the poor man's plan and dropped the third bag down the chimney instead. One version claims that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

Popularization of this story led to the tradition of giving gifts on St. Nicholas’ feast day, December 6th. Variations in saying his name resulted in the popular name, Santa Claus.

A great famine struck Myra in 311 and a ship was anchored at the port loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas asked the crew to unload a part of the wheat to help the people through the famine. The crew at first objected to the request, because the wheat had to be weighed before being delivered to the Emperor. Nicholas assured them that they would arrive at their destination with the full load and the sailors agreed to give Nicholas the portion. When they arrived later in the capital, they found just what Nicholas had promised: the weight of the load had not changed, even though the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.

According to Greek historians, he imprisoned and tortured for his faith and made a glorious confession near the end of the great persecution ordered by the emperor, Diocletian. When the Christian Emperor Constantine assumed the throne, the captives, including Nicholas were released.

St. Methodius writes in his biography of Nicholas that "thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison”. He is also claimed to have been present at the Council of Nicaea and there condemned Arianism. Some accounts state that he went so far as to slap Arius in the face. These accounts are disputed in some cases.

Another story of St. Nicholas is also very famous. The governor Eustathius had taken a bribe to three innocent men to death. On the day of their execution, Nicholas went to them and stayed the hands of the executioner, and they were released. Then he turned to Eustathius and rebuked him until he admitted his guilt and sorrow for his actions. Three officers were present to witness this while they were on their way to duty in Phrygia. Later, when they were in Constantinople, the prefect Ablavius became jealous with them and ordered them imprisoned on false charges and an order for their death was obtained from the Emperor Constantine. The officers remembered the incident they witnessed and they prayed to God that they would be saved through Nicholas. That night St. Nicholas appeared in a dream to Constantine, and told him with threats to release the three innocent men, and Ablavius experienced the same thing. In the morning the Emperor and the prefect told each other of their dreams. The emperor asked the three men about the dream and when they had confirmed that they asked for the help of Nicholas, who had appeared to him, Constantine set them free and sent them to Nicholas with a letter asking him not to threaten him anymore but to pray for the peace of the world. This was for a very long time, the most famous miracle of St. Nicholas, and at the time of St. Methodius was the only thing generally known about him.

He died at Myra, and was buried in his cathedral, though some of his relics were later taken during the crusades either by thieves or pious Christians trying to preserve them and brought to Venice.  His relics are still preserved in the church of San Nicola in Bari, and also in Venice’s Lido.  An oily substance, called the “Manna di S. Nicola”, which smells of roses and is known for its healing powers, is said to flow from the relics in Bari. Scientific study has confirmed that the relics in Venice and Bari came from the same person.