St. Nicholas (died c.350)
Feast day: Dec. 6
An entire book could be devoted just to the patrons of
children. More saints have been assigned to watch over
infants, little boys and girls, and adolescents than any
other group, perhaps because they are the most vulnerable
members of the human family.
The saint with the longest history as patron of children is
St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra and one of the
most popular saints of all time. The number of churches,
chapels, religious institutions, and altars dedicated to him
throughout the Christian world defy counting. His cult is
still strong in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and
in the Orthodox Church, but in the West St. Nicholas has
suffered a set-back.
Since the mid-19th century, particularly in the United
States, St. Nicholas has been tangled up with Santa Claus; as
a result, devotion to Nicholas has diminished. It's hard to
pray seriously to someone described as "a right jolly old
elf." It would take too long to explain how St. Nicholas came
to be associated with Santa, but interested readers will find
the story laid out in two fine books, Charles W. Jones'
Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of
Legend, and Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for
Nicholas was born to a Christian family in Patara in what is
now Turkey. He became a priest and eventually was named
bishop of Myra. Although his name does not appear on the
oldest lists of bishops who attended the Council of Nicaea, a
strong tradition among the Greeks insists he was there and
even slapped Arius across the face when the heretic was bold
enough to assert that God the Son is less than God the
Nicholas' patronage of children comes from an ancient legend
that tells how he raised from the dead three little boys who
had been murdered by an innkeeper. The most popular story
about St. Nicholas, one that is still well-known, tells of
his compassion for three poor young women. Their father had
lost his fortune and with it all hope of providing dowries
for his daughters. To save them from their poverty and the
threat of having to support themselves as prostitutes,
Nicholas threw bags of gold coins through an open window of
the poor family's house so that each daughter would have
enough to make a good marriage.
In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks began encroaching on
the territory of the Byzantine Empire. By 1084, Myra, the
site of the tomb of St. Nicholas, was in Muslim hands.
Although the Turks had not defiled the shrine, many
Christians in the West thought it scandalous that the relics
of St. Nicholas should be in enemy hands. The Venetians
planned to rescue the saint, but in 1087 merchants from Bari
in southern Italy got there first. Today the relics of St.
Nicholas lie in the crypt of the grand Romanesque basilica
the people of Bari built for the saint, and pilgrims - both
Catholic and Orthodox - continue to visit the shrine.
To celebrate the patron saint of children, it is the custom
among the Austrians, Germans, Swiss, Belgians and Dutch to
give small gifts and candy to children on St. Nicholas' Day,
making the feast a sweet prelude to Christmas.
Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly and
This Saint Will Change Your Life.