This biography of Saint Nicholas was compiled by Doug Anderson of the amazing website Hymns and Carols of Christmas which he began over 12 years ago.
Saint Nicholas was born in Patara, Turkey, where the streets he walked remain
The original Saint Nicholas
Nicholas, a citizen of Pbatras, was born c 270 AD of rich & devout parents. Patras was in Lycia, a province of modern Turkey. He was the only child of his father, Epiphanes, & his mother, Johanna.
Reported miracle - The Miracles of Infancy
According to one tradition, on the day of his birth Nicholas stood up unaided in the bath while being washed. After that he took his mother's breast only twice a week, once on Wednesdays & Fridays. During this period, it was a common belief that infants & children were just miniature adults. What they did when young would reflect what they would do when they matured. When Nicholas grew up, he avoided the pleasures of other young men & preferred to spend his time visiting churches, & whatever he could learn there of Holy Scripture he made sure to remember.
Chartres Cathedral Stained Glass
Reported miracle - The Three Daughters
After his parents died he began to wonder how he might use his great riches, not to win any praise for himself, but rather for the glory of God. Now it happened that one of his neighbors, a nobleman who had fallen on hard times, was about to prostitute his three young daughters, hoping by this shameful business to raise enough money to support his family. When the saint learnt of this he was appalled at the thought of such a crime: he wrapped a sum of gold in a piece of cloth & threw it into the nobleman's house one night through a window, then stole away again. When the nobleman got up next morning, he found the gold &, thanking God, he arranged the marriage of his eldest daughter. Not long afterwards the servant of God did the same thing again. The nobleman, again discovering the gold & loudly singing the praises of his unknown benefactor, decided to sit up & keep watch, in order to discover who it was who had rescued him from his poverty. After a few days Nicholas threw double the amount of gold into his house; but the noise woke the nobleman & he gave chase as Nicholas ran off, shouting after him: 'Stop! Don't sneak away! I want to see you!' And, as he redoubled his efforts to catch him, he saw that it was Nicholas. Immediately he fell to the ground & tried to kiss his feet, but Nicholas stopped him, & made him promise never to reveal his secret until after his death.
Saint Nicholas and Scenes from his Life Saint Nicholas provides a dowry for the 3 daughters of an impoverished nobleman.
Soon after Nicholas decided to become a priest & he undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The first of many miracles concerning Nicholas’ relationship to sailors occurs during this pilgrimage.
Reported miracle - Nicholas’ Election as a Bishop
On his return from the Holy Land, the bishop of Myra died, & the bishops met to appoint his successor. Now among them was one particular bishop of great authority, whose opinion was extremely influential. He urged the others to give themselves up to fasting & prayer, & that very night he heard a voice telling him to station himself at the doors of the church at daybreak, & to consecrate as bishop the first man he saw coming to church, whose name would be Nicholas. He recounted this to the other bishops &, urging them to devote themselves to prayer, he went to his post in front of the church doors to keep watch. At daybreak, miraculously directed by God, Nicholas came to the church before anyone else. The bishop stopped him & asked: 'What is your name?' With dove-like simplicity, he bowed his head & replied: 'Nicholas, a servant of your holiness.' So the bishops took him into the church &, though he struggled hard to resist them, installed him on the bishop's throne. But in all he did subsequently Nicholas displayed the same humility & gravity of manner, he passed whole nights in prayer; he mortified his body; he shunned the company of women; he was humble in his attitude towards others; he was an effective preacher, ardent in exhorting men to good, severe in his denunciation of evil.
In approximately 303 AD the emperors Diocletian & Maximtan began a terribly cruel persecution of the Church throughout the Roman Empire, starting in the city of Nicomedia where upwards of 20,000 Christians were burned in the church. Many Christians, including Bishop Nicholas, were arrested, tortured, chained & thrown into prison. Many also died for their faith, including Saint Lucia.
Eusebius of Caesarea, Palestinae (ca. 263-339), in his Church History, Book VIII, recorded the beginnings of the persecution:
It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, when the feast of the Saviour's passion was near at hand, that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground & the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, & ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, & that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom. Such was the first edict against us. But not long after, other decrees were issued, commanding that all the rulers of the churches in every place be first thrown into prison, & afterwards by every artifice be compelled to sacrifices.
The martyrs of this time suffered multiple kinds of death:
…thousands of men, women, & children, despising the present life for the sake of the teaching of our Saviour, endured various deaths. Some of them, after scrapings & rackings & severest scourgings, & numberless other kinds of tortures, terrible even to hear of, were committed to the flames; some were drowned in the sea; some offered their heads bravely to those who cut them off; some died under their tortures, & others perished with hunger. And yet others were crucified; some according to the method commonly employed for malefactors; others yet more cruelly, being nailed to the cross with their heads downward, & being kept alive until they perished on the cross with hunger.
With the accession of Constantine in 313 AD, freedom of religion was reestablished as a law of the Empire. Nicholas & the others were released. Nicolas returned to his flock in Myra. It is also stated that Nicholas took part in the Council of Nicaea in 325. However, there is no corroborating evidence of that allegation.
One Miracle Concerning Sailors
One day some sailors, in great peril at sea, tearfully offered up this prayer: 'Nicholas, servant of God, if what we hear of your power is true, grant that we may feel it now!' Immediately a figure appeared, looking just like the saint, & said: 'You have called me, & here I am.' And he promptly set about helping the crew with the sails & cables & the rest of the tackle, & all at once the storm abated. When later the sailors made their way to his church, though they had never seen him in the flesh before, they recognized him instantly. So they thanked God & the saint for their deliverance, but Nicholas told them it was due to God's mercy & their own faith, & not to any merits of his own.
Reported miracle - The Three Schoolboys
Three boys were returning home from school for the holidays & had stopped at an inn overnight. The innkeeper, thinking to profit from this, took the boys, killed them, cut up their bodies, & put the parts into pickling casks. The parents of the boys were worried & appealed to Saint Nicholas who searched the road until he came to the inn. When confronted by the Bishop, the innkeeper admitted his sin. With a wave of his sceptre, Nicholas caused the boys to be reassembled & resurrected from the casks.
Reported miracle - The Famine & the Grain
At one time a serious famine was ravaging the whole region, & no one had food to eat. Now the man of God, hearing that some merchant ships loaded with corn had put into harbor, immediately set out there, & asked the sailors to come to the aid of the starving by supplying a minimum of a hundred measures of corn from each vessel, They replied ‘We dare not, father. It was measured out in Alexandria, & we must deliver the full amount to the emperor's granaries.' The saint said: 'Do as I tell you, & I promise you, by the power of God, that your cargo will not be found wanting when the emperor's steward inspects it.' They did as he ordered, & delivered to the emperor's officials exactly the same amount as they had taken on board at Alexandria. They told everyone of this miracle, & praised & glorified God for his servant Nicholas. As for the corn they had given him, Nicholas distributed it to everyone according to their need, & miraculously provided not only enough food for two whole years, but grain for sowing as well.
Russian icon dating back to 1294
Reported miracle - The Cleansing of the Temple of Diana
Now in the past this whole region had worshiped idols, & the people had long held in particular veneration an image of the infamous goddess Diana. Even in the time of St Nicholas some country folk still adhered to this abominable superstition & performed pagan rites to Diana beneath a sacred tree. In an attempt to stamp out these rites the saint had the tree cut down. This infuriated the Ancient Enemy, who made up a magic oil which could burn even in water or on stone. Then, taking on the appearance of a nun, he put out in a little boat & drew alongside a band of pilgrims who were travelling by sea to meet Nicholas. 'I would have liked to go with you to see the saint,' he told them, ‘but I cannot. So please, would you take this oil to his church as an offering &, in memory of me, anoint the walls of the building with it?' He then vanished. And suddenly they saw another boat, full of honest souls, & among them someone very like St Nicholas, who said to them: 'Ah! What has that woman said to you? What has she brought you? They told him the whole story & he said 'that was the shameless goddess Diana! And to prove the truth of what I tell you, throw that oil into the sea!' They did as he said & a great tongue of flame leapt up from the water &, as they watched, the flames burnt away for hours with supernatural vigor. They completed their journey, & when they found the servant of God, they exclaimed: 'You really are he! You are the one who appeared to us out at sea & saved us from the snares of the Devil!’
St. Nicholas Novgorod
Reported miracle - The Three Princes & the Three Soldiers
Around this time a certain tribe had rebelled against the Roman Empire & the emperor sent three princes, Nepotianus, Ursus & Apilio, to quell them. They were compelled by contrary winds to put in at the port of Andriaca, & St Nicholas invited them to dine with him, hoping to get them to restrain their troops from the usual thieving on market days. Meanwhile, during the saint's absence, the Roman consul was bribed to condemn three soldiers to death by beheading. When Nicholas heard the news, he asked his three guests to join him as quickly as they could, & when he reached the place of execution, he found the condemned men already kneeling with their heads covered & the executioner brandishing his sword above them. Ablaze with zeal, Nicholas charged at him, dashed the sword from his hand, freed the three soldiers & took them home unharmed. Then he hurried to the consul's residence &, finding the door locked, he forced it open. Presently the consul came hurrying to greet him, but Nicholas rebuffed him. 'Enemy of God!' he cried. 'Subverter of the law! How dare you look me in the eye when you have committed so heinous a crime!' And he continued to hurl abuse at the man until finally, yielding to the princes' pleas, he acknowledged the consul's repentance & good-naturedley forgave him. Then, after receiving the saint's blessing, the emperor's envoys resumed their journey, subdued the enemy without bloodshed, & were given a splendid welcome by the emperor on their return.
But certain of their countrymen were jealous of the princes' success, & bribed the imperial prefect to accuse them of treason before the emperor. When the emperor heard the prefect's charge, he flew into a rage & had the princes thrown into prison, with orders that they should be executed that night without the formality of a hearing. The princes, learning what had happened from their guard, tore their clothing in despair & began to weep bitterly. Then one of them, Nepotianus, recalling that Nicholas had saved the three innocent soldiers from execution, urged the others to pray for his protection. In answer to their prayers, St Nicholas appeared that night to the emperor Constantine. 'Why have you been so unjust?' he demanded. ‘Why have you arrested these three princes & sentenced them to death, when they have done no wrong? Get up now, quickly, & have them released at once, or I will ask God to start a war in which you will be overthrown, & your corpse will be the prey of wild beasts!' The emperor replied: 'Who are you that dare burst into my palace & talk like this?' Nicholas replied: 'I am Nicholas, bishop of Myra.' He also terrified the prefect in the same way, appearing to him in a vision. 'You fool!’ he said 'You senseless man! Why have you consented to the murder of innocent men? Hurry now, make sure to set them free, or your body will be riddled with worms & your house collapse in ruins? The prefect replied: 'Who are you to threaten me like this?' 'I am Nicholas,' the saint replied, 'bishop of Myra.' Immediately both emperor & prefect awoke & recounted to each other their dreams. They sent at once for the prisoners. 'What is this sorcery of yours,' the emperor demanded, 'that you send such dreams to delude us?' They replied that they were no sorcerers & had not deserved to be sentenced to death. The emperor then asked them: 'Do you know a man called Nicholas?' When they heard his name, the princes stretched their hands to heaven in prayer & asked God, through the merits of St Nicholas, to save them from the peril that threatened them. And when the emperor learnt from them about the life & miracles of Nicholas, he said 'Go free, then, & thank God for saving you through the intercession of Nicholas. But take the saint some jewels as gifts from me, too, & ask him to threaten me no more, but to pray constantly to the Lord for me & my kingdom.'
A few days later they prostrated themselves at the saint's feet & exclaimed: 'You are a true servant of God, a true worshipper & lover of Christ!' And when they told him all that had happened, Nicholas raised his hands to heaven & thanked God from the bottom of his heart &, after instructing them fully in the faith, he sent them back home.
Icon c 1500 St Nicholas
Reported miracle - The Death of St. Nicholas
Now when the Lord decided to take Nicholas to him, the saint prayed that he might send him his angels, &, with his head still bowed in prayer, he saw them approaching him. He recited the Psalm 'In thee, O Lord, have I trusted' (Psalm 30 (31), & when he reached the words: 'Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit' (v. 5), he breathed his last, and at his passing, the heavenly choirs were heard. This was in the year 343.
Reported miracle - The Myrrh from the Bishop of Myra & The Bishop’s Successor
When he was buried in his marble tomb, a stream of oil flowed from his head & a stream of water from his feet, & holy oil still issues from his body today & heals many sick people. Nicholas's successor was a good man, but he was expelled from his see by the jealousy of his rivals. While he was in exile, the holy oil stopped flowing, but as soon as he was recalled it began to flow again.
Saint Nicholas died in Myra, Turkey where the ancient Rock Cut Tombs remain
Guace (or Wace), a Norman French scribe, wrote the life of Nicholas as Metric Poems for use as sermons in 1150. The poem was nearly 1500 lines long, & included descriptions of the 21 miracles of the Saint.
Other reported miracles of Nicholas include:
Reported miracle - In the excitement of going to see her archbishop, a woman left her baby in a tub of water over a fire. Remembering, she appealed to Nicholas & the baby was found unhurt, playing in the bubbling water.
Reported miracle - A child, so afflicted by a demon as to be uncontrollable, was brought to the bishop who drove out the demon & healed the child.
Reported miracle - The saint healed great numbers of the sick & freed many from evil spirits.
Reported miracle - A pagan who had crossed the sea to rob Christians found an image of St. Nicholas & was told it would protect his ill-gotten gains. However, thieves stole his loot, so he struck the image of the saint. Nevertheless, the saint saw to it that the monies were returned, & both robber & thieves were converted to Christianity.
Reported miracle - A Christian borrowed money from a Jew & pledged repayment on the image of St. Nicholas. When the debt was due, he declared he had paid it. The Jew said he would consider the debt satisfied if, at their next meeting, the debtor would swear on the saint's image that the money had been returned. On the day of the meeting the Christian enclosed the money due in a walking stick & asked the Jew to hold it while he took the oath. Retrieving the stick, he started homeward only to be struck by a cart, which broke the stick & exposed the fraud. The Jew got his money, the Christian was returned to health & integrity, & the Jew's entire household was converted.
Reported miracle - Fulfilling a vow, a man had a costly cup made to offer at the saint's tomb. Then, considering it too beautiful to give, he had a cheaper one made. With his wife & son he went on a pilgrimage to Myra, & on the voyage his son, while holding the finer cup, fell overboard. At the church, the bereaved father laid the second cup on the altar, but it repeatedly fell off. The repentant father confessed, causing the son with the finer cup to come running to him.
Reported miracle - A long-married couple made a pilgrimage to Myra to pray for a son. Their prayers were answered. The child, who was born on St. Nicholas Day, was later stolen & sold to the Saracen emperor & grew up in his service. Every December 6 the couple prayed for his return until finally their prayers were answered. Their son was returned to them on St. Nicholas Day.
Reported miracle - While sleeping at an inn, the innkeeper killed a merchant on a pilgrimage to the church at Myra, his mangled remains put into a barrel. The saint came, restored the merchant to life, & left in the night. The next morning the innkeeper, in fear & amazement, joined the merchant on his pilgrimage.
Reported miracle - A man of Lombardie celebrated the saint's feast day annually. On one such occasion, his young daughter was left alone in the house. The devil appeared at the door disguised as a beggar asking for bread & strangled the little girl. Then, after the father had returned, St. Nicholas appeared at the door disguised as a pilgrim asking for bread. The father showed him the child's body, & she was soon brought back to life.
Reported miracle - A baron-pilgrim, wishing to take back to his country a relic of the saint, made off with a tooth. Through its wrappings came a steady flow of oil. Then, after the saint appeared to the baron in a dream saying that his body must not be divided, he awoke to find the tooth gone.
Reported miracle - A paralytic who could not even raise his hand was carried to the monastery of the saint, who anointed him with holy oils & prayed--& he was healed.
Churches in Asia Minor & Greece were being named in honor of him by 450. An elaborate Basilica was built over his tomb in 540 & dedicated to the saint by the Roman emperor Justinian I, at Constantinople, now Istanbul. By 800, he was officially recognized as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church. An early life of St. Nicholas listing all his miracles, was written in Greek by Saint Methodius, Bishop of Constantinople in 842; it was translated into Latin by John the Deacon in approximately 880. And in 850, the Clergy of Cologne Cathedral were commemorating the death of the saint by giving fruit & cookies to the boys of the cathedral school, on the 6th December. By the ninth century, the first hymns to Nicholas were created.
Nicholas became Patron Saint of Russia in 987 by decree of Duke Vladimir; he was readily adopted as Nikolai Choodovoritz (Nicholas, Miracle Maker). In 1084, the Turks took Antioch. Three years later, in 1087, 47 Italian soldiers stole the bones of St. Nicholas from his tomb in Demre & on May 9th brought his body to Bari, Italy (for this reason he is sometimes known as Saint Nicholas of Bari.). The theft was unofficially approved by the Church, which was anxious in case the shrine of the saint was desecrated in the many wars & attacks in the region. Also, by that time, the break between the Universal Church creating Roman Catholic & Eastern Orthodox, was a contributing factor. The Roman Church felt that the bones of this most popular of saints should be in their safekeeping. This removal greatly increased his popularity, & Bari became one of the most crowded pilgrimage centers. His relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century Basilica of S. Nicola at Bari. Pope Urban II was present at the enshrining of the relics of the saint in the basilica.
Life of St. Nicholas written by the Norman monk John (or Jean) of Saint Ouen in Rouen in 1119. At about the same time, nuns in Belgium & France were giving gifts to the children of the poor, & those in their care, on the Saints Feast Day, 6th December. This is among the first instances where gift giving is performed in the name of Saint Nicholas. By 1400, over 500 songs & hymns had been written in honor of Nicholas. And in 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on December 6th, naming the port St. Nicholas in thanks for the safe journey. By end of the 1400s, St Nicholas was the third most beloved religious figure, after Jesus & Mary. There were more than 2000 chapels & monasteries named after him, exceeded only by the Virgin Mary. More than 700 churches in Britain alone, were dedicated to St. Nicholas.
Over time, the date of his death, December 6th was commemorated with an annual feast, which gradually came to mark the beginning of the medieval Christmas season.