The young lad’s wealthy parents, who raised him a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. That left Nicholas rich, and for a pious type in the radical early church, riches were a problem. Taking Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor” quite literally, Nicholas blew his whole inheritance on helping out the needy, the sick, and the suffering. After he pulled off a couple of miracles (on account of which he’s sometimes called Nicholas the Wonder Worker) while still a boy, the Christians of the town of Myra (now Demre, Turkey) chose him to be their new bishop. Ensconced in his new office, Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his especial concern for sailors, of whom he remains the patron saint. One of his most famous exploits was offering his own life in place of a man who was to be put to death, an adventure that ended happily when the authorities let them both off the hook. Russian artist Ilya Repin painted what’s become a classic depiction of this incident.
Not that that was Nicholas’ only impressive saintly deed. Another famous legend about the saint tells of a once-rich man who fell on hard times. He had three daughters to marry off, but in his new financial straits he couldn’t come up with good dowries. It looked like the poor girls were destined to be sold into slavery, or become prostitutes. Word of the family’s misfortune reached Nicholas, however, who hadn’t yet managed to give away all his parents’ wealth. Sneaking up to the poor man’s house at night, he tossed a bag of gold through an open window, then ran away. The gold landed in a stocking left before the fire to dry, where it was discovered with great delight in the morning. The sum allowed the first daughter to get married. Not long after that another bag of gold flew through the window, and the second daughter used it to get hitched. By now the father, anxious to know who his secret benefactor was, was keeping watch during the night. When a third bag of gold finally flew through the window and landed in the house, the watchful father leaped In
his guise as a gift-giver Nicholas became associated with giving presents to people and especially kids
up and caught the fleeing donor. “Aha, Nicholas, it’s you!” he cried out. “You’ve saved my daughters from certain disaster!” An embarrassed Nicholas begged the man not to spill the beans about his identity, and instructed him to thank not himself, Nicholas, but rather God, who was responsible for all good things.
After his death, the legend of Nicholas’ tremendous mercy and devotion to God grew and grew. He was never officially canonised, but became the venerated centre of a cult nonetheless. (His relics, by the way, have long been kept in a church in Bari, Italy.) In his guise as a gift-giver – to the daughters of down-on-their-luck rich men and others – Nicholas also became associated with giving presents to people and especially kids, which is how it happened that this native of sunny Asia Minor over the centuries turned into the redsuited, North Pole-dwelling Santa Claus of Northern European and North American Christmas lore. It’s also how he became the saint of holiday gift-giving among Ukrainians, who have been celebrating his day since Kyiv Rus was converted to Christianity in 988. Here in Ukraine St. Nicholas isn’t a fat, jolly chap in a red suit, of course: that would be Ded Moroz, the Soviet version of Santa Claus. But he’s still every little kid’s favourite saint. On the eve of his day, parents put candies or small gifts under their kid’s pillows or in their slippers while they sleep, generating howls of delight in the morning when the gullible little ones find the precious goods.