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Recognizing the True St. Nicholas

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Dec 05, 2014

The feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 is a favorite highlight of the Advent season. Remembering one of our favorite childhood traditions, over the years my family has gathered with my siblings and their families to bake speculaas, traditional Dutch spice cookies. We enjoy the family togetherness as we talk about St. Nicholas, Advent, and upcoming Christmas plans, all while cutting and baking the cookies. These cookies will find their way into everyone’s stockings or shoes the night before St. Nicholas’ feast day.

I’m not isolated in my love of St. Nicholas and his feast day. All over the world there are so many traditions, foods, songs and prayers all attached to this day (see the sidebar for just a few examples), originating from special devotion and love of this beloved saint. While I enjoy celebrating his feast, I do ponder how to apply lessons from his life, especially for my children. His feast can't be only about baking cookies and receiving gifts in stockings or shoes. St. Nicholas was a living person who loved Jesus and lived the Gospel. He battled against sin and human weakness. I already presented my criteria for saint books and am continuing my thoughts on how to present a fully dimensional saint that my family can learn living lessons of imitation.

There is one problem with finding the true St. Nicholas. As he died in 346 A.D., it is hard to find solid biographical information. There are many stories and legends, all illustrating his strong faith and love for his flock, but are they all true? How do I present these stories? Are they just pious stories, or are they historical events?

A main source of many stories and legends is The Golden Legend (or Lives of the Saints) by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, written in 1275. During medieval times, the saints were the heroes of the day, and everyone turned to a saint for aid in his everyday needs.

In the foreword to the 1941 edition by Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (p. xii), the authors explain that Jacobus and other hagiographers of his time were not historians.

Their writings were aimed at the hearts of their readers rather than at their minds. Their purpose was less to make known to the people what the saints had been, than to show the people what they should be in order to be saints. In other words, they were presenting the ideal of the Gospel in the most concrete possible form to an audience much more capable of understanding a graphic narrative than of grasping an abstract ethical disquisition.

This helped me to better understand how the reading the historical events and pious stories about St. Nicholas can both help others become saints, too, because they illustrate how to live the Gospel, which is the way to get to heaven.

We are so far removed from his time, but the miracles that happened during his life and after his death illustrate that Nicholas was almost larger than life. St. Francis of Assisi is one saint who had this dynamism, this fire that ignited everyone around him. When thinking of modern saints, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II both come to mind. They both lived the Gospel, loved extraordinarily, and their lives were a witness to all of being "living saints."

St. Nicholas of Myra must have been an extraordinary person, to elicit such devotion in people both during his life and afterwards. Patron Saints Index has a long list of patronages, including, brides; children; fishermen; grooms; maidens; merchants; perfumers; pharmacists; pilgrims; poor people; sailors; and students. The list is not all-inclusive. For example, St. Collette's parents begged St. Nicholas to send them a child, even though they were past the child-bearing years (almost 60 years old!). A daughter was born, and named “Nicolette” in thanksgiving for the answer to their prayers.

The stories about St. Nicholas, whether legends or completely true, are examples of living the Gospel. One aspect of “living the Gospel” are the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy:"The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities" (CCC, #2447). The traditional listing of the works are:

Corporal Works of Mercy (based on Mt 25:34)*:

  1. Feed the hungry
  2. Give drink to the thirsty
  3. Clothe the naked
  4. Visit the imprisoned
  5. Shelter the homeless
  6. Visit the sick
  7. Bury the dead

*Giving Alms includes many of these works.

Spiritual Works of Mercy

  1. Admonish the sinner
  2. Instruct the ignorant
  3. Counsel the doubtful
  4. Comfort the sorrowful
  5. Bear wrongs patiently
  6. Forgive all injuries
  7. Pray for the living and the dead

As I mentally go through some of the stories of St. Nicholas, I can easily see how he practiced these works in his life. These are just a few examples:

  • He was very generous to the less fortunate throughout his life. He had inherited money from his parents, and gave the money to the poor, including the famous story of giving gold for dowries for three daughters.
  • St. Nicholas lived during the time of the early Church, during the Emperor Diocletian. This was a difficult era for the early Church, struggling to establish Christianity in a pagan world. In his work as the Bishop or shepherd of his flock, St. Nicholas daily admonished the sinner, counseled the doubtful and instructed the ignorant. The stories of bi-location and extraordinary miracles are an illustration of how much he wanted to help those new Christians preserve their faith. There are several stories of how he "comforted the sorrowful" (i.e., mourning) to the point of raising a person from the dead.
  • In one legend he “battled” against the Prophet Mohammed, a perfect illustration of being a lover and defender of the Truth of our Faith and trying to instruct the ignorant. In modern times we still are battling in faith against Islam, so this story is very relevant to us.
  • The well-known dowry story illustrates the importance of guarding chastity. He "clothed the naked" by providing money for dowry instead of seeing a father sell his daughters into prostitution.
  • There are many, many stories indicate how much St. Nicholas valued life from the beginning, and how he loved children. During St. Nicholas’ time, children were not valued, a similar problem we find today with abortion and contraception. One of the most gruesome tales is of three boys killed and their bodies were pickled in barrels to serve as food. St. Nicholas found them and brought them back to life. Through the spiritual works of admonishing the sinner and instructing the ignorant, St. Nicholas shows that life at all stages is a sacred gift from God.

Considering the stories and pictures of the life of St. Nicholas, each portrayal, whether fantastic or mundane, is a little illustration of how St. Nicholas practiced the works of mercy and lived the Gospel. In this way, St. Nicholas becomes more alive, with tangible examples to help teach what is necessary to become saints. As parents we can help our children find areas in our life to live out the works of mercy, using St. Nicholas' life as an example and inspiration. Through the intercession and example of St. Nicholas, may we become saints!

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Litlflwr2800 - Dec. 05, 2014 10:50 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Jennifer, for this informative post. Just last night, I was talking to my family about St. Nicholas and they were saying that they knew very little about him. I am forwarding a link to this post right now. I read the children's book you recommended to my class yesterday to illustrate the virtue of Justice in action. It was perfect! And, I love the picture of his namesake you included above!