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Who is St. Nicholas?

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"Is there really a Santa Claus?" That is the question resulting in a multitude of arguments over the years. The answer to this question could be, "There was a Saint Nicholas."

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The man known as Saint Nicholas, or simply Nicholas, was born in the village of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia) in about 270 AD. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. he was raised by his uncle—also named Nicholas—who was the bishop of Patara. His uncle made young Nicholas a reader in the church, and later ordained him as a priest. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man.

Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need. There are many specific stories of his assistance to those in need.

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers.

When Constantine became emperor, Nicholas was released. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 where he spoke out against Arianism.

He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar).

The earliest church of St. Nicholas at Myra was built in the 6th century. The present-day church was constructed mainly from the 8th century onward; a monastery was added in the second half of the 11th century. In 1863, Tsar Alexander II of Russia purchased the building and began restoration, but the work was never finished. In 1963 the eastern and southern sides of the church were excavated.

The tomb of St. Nicholas was robbed twice. Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas' skeleton in 1087, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and brought to Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido.

There are many stories about Nicholas. One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.

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