If we understand him to be jovial Santa Claus of parades and department stores, then perhaps we may have outgrown him as we have matured. For Christians of the East, however, St. Nicholas is hardly the stuff of legends. Nicholas was already well-known for his great personal sanctity, even before he became Archbishop of Myra in Lycia in what was Asia Minor. Both his parents are also saints. Good and holy parents are like iconographers in the East. Their holiness is indicated by the results of their creative and inspired artistry. St Nicholas' parents were used by the Holy Spirit to bring to fruition the full stature of Christ in his soul!
As he was present for the First Ecumenical Council in AD 325, we definitely know he was born at the end of the third century. That Council was called to condemn the heresy of the Alexandrian monk, Arius, who denied the Divinity of Christ. This was the Council where the term "orthodox" was first generally used to define the true faith about and in Christ, as opposed to the heretical musings of Arius and others ever since.
Nicholas was shaken to the core of his being at the very thought of Arius' impiety. He was consumed by a holy zeal and, in righteous anger, struck Arius across the face during the Council meetings. His fellow Christian Bishops thought this action was unbecoming, and therefore immediately censured Nicholas by taking from him the symbols of his episcopal office, his Pallium and his Gospel. As they did this, an apparition took place. Christ and the Virgin Mary-Theotokos appeared on either side of Nicholas, Christ holding the Gospel-book and the Mother of Christ our God holding the Pallium. At that, the Council reinstated Nicholas. This miracle is celebrated on his feast, December 6, to this day. This depiction of St. Nicholas has been the most popular in his iconography ever since.
In addition to his strong witness to Christianity and faith in Christ, St Nicholas was also extremely compassionate and loving to his flock. A father in Myra could not raise a dowry for his three daughters and so decided to send them into a brothel. Nicholas then went to the man's home at night and dropped three bags of gold in through the low-lying chimney (he needed neither reindeer nor a ladder . . .). Nicholas then crept away silently into the night. In the morning, the daughters were overjoyed at finding the gifts. The father was then inspired to believe it was Nicholas who brought the presents. He went straightway to Nicholas to thank him on his knees. But Nicholas simply gazed at him without saying anything. This is the true story that has inspired the annual "coming of St Nicholas" to the homes, families and communities of faithful to this day. Nicholas is also remembered for many other acts of mercy and kindness.
The coming of St Nicholas on the eve of his Feast was always a big celebration in my extended family. As we children played on the eve of December 5th , a thud was suddenly heard on the roof. The doorbell rang and in came relatives shouting to us that St. Nicholas had just landed with his sleigh directly on top of the house! As a matter of fact, he was coming down and would be among us in seconds . . . A chair was quickly prepared and covered with an appropriate white cloth for our honored guest. Anticipation gave way to anxiety as everyone lined up on either side of the main doors and prayer books were opened. A saint from heaven was about to physically enter our home!
And then the singing of the Troparion and Kontakion of St Nicholas began. The Sign of the Cross was made with bows. The Our Father and Trisagion prayers were said. And, lo and behold, there at the doorway appeared St Nicholas. There was no doubt about it, it was really he. Crosses adorned his white mantle. He had a mitre and a staff. He walked slowly like an elderly Bishop would. And he blessed us with the "Christogram" or with his fingers shaped in the position of the Name of Jesus Christ. We went down on our knees and were too afraid to look up.
St Nicholas blessed us and spoke to us about the poor and hungry children in the world. He encouraged us to be happy with what we had and to share with others from the bountiful gifts that God had been pleased to give us. He also encouraged us to read more and watch television less. I knew he saw me sneak away to turn on the T.V. when my parents told me not to!
He sat down on his chair of honor and dispensed gifts to all of us. With that, he said he had other families to attend to, especially in Ukraine and Eastern Europe where people suffered all sorts of privations. But he said he would be back. He told us to never omit our prayers and to go to Church. He also asked us to love our parents and to be kind to one and all.
As I walked into the hallway, children sat transfixed by this bearded prelate with a shepherd's staff. A little girl was crying on someone's arms. I think she thought St Nicholas had brought presents for everyone else, but not for her! I made my way through the crowd and put my hand on the little girl. She turned to see who it was. The surprise on her face was worth the world to me! She stopped crying as I picked her up and placed her on my lap at the front so everyone could see that St Nicholas had not forgotten her after all.
Not knowing what to say, I told the children that St Nicholas was a real person living in heaven. That, even now, he was praying that God send us His special Gifts, especially the Gift of His Only-Begotten Son, Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Today, God asks us to place Him not on a manger, but in our hearts where we ourselves would have the privilege of warming the Christ Child with our welcoming and grateful love. In his Christian Faith and holy compassion, St Nicholas still brings us the greatest gift of all that is Christ the Savior!
O holy Nicholas, Bishop of Christ, you lived your life with people of Myra. But since your spirit was anointed, your fragrance of sanctity was known by all. Now you anoint the faithful who show their love for you. O Father, deliver us from all distress and sorrow as you pray to the Lord for us.
O holy Nicholas, true servant of Christ, you are truly a protector of your faithful flock; and whenever you were asked for help, you gladly assisted those who sought your aid. Now you are also ready by day or by night to deliver us from all distress and sorrow.
When you appeared in a dream to Constantine the King, you gave him this warning: Release at once from prison those you have unjustly confined, for they are innocent; no murder did they commit as you claim. O King, listen to me, or else I shall call upon the Lord.
O holy Nicholas, holy preacher of Christ, always ready to help all on land or at sea. Whether they be near or far, you have compassion for all. You are a precious helper; therefore, we who gather here ask you to pray to the Lord
that we be delivered from all distress and sorrow.
What crowns of praise shall we confer upon the saintly Nicholas? Once present in the flesh in Myra, he is present in spirit to all who love him purely. He is the leader and defender of everyone, a comforter in distress and a haven of all in danger, a pillar of piety and conqueror for believers. For his sake, Christ overcame enemies and shows us great mercy.
We have gathered to celebrate and to praise with song the model of bishops and a glory to the fathers, a fountain of miracles and a great helper of believers. Let us sing to the saintly Nicholas: Rejoice, O Protector of Myra who was revered as its leader and strongest pillar. Rejoice, O Radiant Star whose light of miracles shines throughout the world. Rejoice, O Divine Joy to those in sorrow. Rejoice, O Defender of those who are oppressed; for even now, all-holy Nicholas, you still pray to God for us who celebrate your feast with faith and who honor you with zeal and joy.