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Nicholas of Myra (also Nikolaus) in Lycia, Asia Minor, (lived c. 270 - 345/352) was a 4th century bishop and is a Christian saint. His feast day is December 6, presumably the date of his death. Among Christians, he is also known as the "Wonderworker". Several acts of kindness and miracles are attributed to him. Historical accounts often confuse him with the later Nicholas of Sion.
He is said to have been born to relatively affluent Christian parents in Patara, Lycia, Asia Minor, Roman Empire where he also received his early schooling. He came to Myra to continue his studies. A paternal uncle of his introduced him to the local bishop. The later is said to have seen potential to the youth and took Nicholas under his patronage. Nicholas received his ordination as a priest at an early age. When his parents died Nicholas still received his inheritance but is said to have given it away in charity.
Nicholas' early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the reign of co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian (reigned 284 - 305) and Maximian (reigned 286 - 305) from which comes the estimation of his age. Diocletian issued an edict in 303 authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. Following the abdication of the two Emperors on May 1, 305 the policies of their successors towards Christians were different. In the Western part of the Empire Constantius Chlorus (reigned 305 - 306) put an end to the systematic persecution upon receiving the throne. In the Eastern part Galerius (reigned 305 - 311) continued the persecution until 311 when from his deathbed he issued a general edict of toleration. The prosecution of 303 - 311 is considered to be the longest in the history of the Empire. Nicholas survived this period although his activities at the time are uncertain.
Following Galerius' death his surviving co-ruler Licinius (reigned 307 - 324) mostly tolerated Christians. As a result their community was allowed to further develop, and the various bishops who acted as their leaders managed to concetrate religious, social and political influence as well as wealth in their hands. In many cases they acted as the heads of their respective cities. It is apparently in this period that Nicholas rose to become bishop of Myra. Judging from tradition he was probably well-loved and respected in his area mostly as a result of his charitable activities. As with other bishops of his time his popularity would serve to ensure his position and influence during and after this period.
In 324 Licinius was defeated in a war against his Western co-ruler Constantine I of the Roman Empire (reigned 306 - 337). The end of the war found the Roman Empire unified under the rule of Constantine. In place of tolerance his policies towards Christians consisted of active support. Under his patronage the Christian church experienced an age of prosperity. But the relative peace of his reign brought to the forefront the internal conflict within contemporary Christianity. One of the apparent main reasons of this conflict was the failure to agree to a commonly accepted concept about God in general and Jesus Christ in particular. At this times the teachings of Arius in Alexandria, Egypt were gaining popular support but also attracting great opposition. They would form the basis of Arianism. Emerging fanaticism in both opposing factions only resulted in spreading tumult across the Empire.
Deciding to address the problem as a matter of the state, Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea which also was the first Ecumenical council in 325. The number of attendants at the council is uncertain with Eusebius of Caesarea reporting as few as 250 and Athanasius of Alexandria as many as 318. In any case Nicholas is usually counted among them and was noted as an opponent of Arianism. A later writer claimed that Nicholas slapped Arius in the face for his heresy. The council lasted from May 20 to June 19, 325 and resulted in the declaration of the Nicene Creed and the formal condemnation of Arianism. The books of Arius and his followers were condemned to be burned but the execution of this decision was left at the hands of each bishop for their respective territories. To what point this decision was followed remains uncertain.
Following this apparent victory to his faction Nicholas returned to Myra. He is applauded by later Christian writers for keeping Myra free of Arianism. But the decisions of the council failed to stop the spread of Arianism. In fact the tides soon turned and in his later years Arianism managed to win favor with Constantine. In fact Constantine was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian bishop who had also attented the council, shortly before his death on May 22, 337. Constantine was succeeded by his three surviving sons: Constantine II of the Roman Empire (reigned 337 - 340), Constantius II (reigned 337 - 361) and Constans (reigned 337 - 350). Constantius originally received the Eastern part of the Empire but the death of his brothers left the entire Empire under his control. During his reign he strongly favored Arianism by seeking to place Arian bishops in most positions. There is no indication that Nicholas was affected by this policies and he remained in his position till his death. This lack of disturbance by the Arian Emperor has been seen as indicating the strong support Nicholas had gained among the people of his territory. According to this reasoning not even Constantius would risk a possible revolt by removing a popular bishop.
The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to him, among them one temple of Artemis (also known as Diana). Because the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas' feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.
Nicholas is also known for coming to the defense of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his prayers on behalf of sailors and other travelers. The popular worshiping of Nicholas as a saint seems to have started relatively early concidering that Justinian I, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 527 - 565) is reported to have built a temple in Nicholas' honor in Constantinople, the Roman capital of the time. In the tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church he is celebrated as the patron saint of sailors , fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbors. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea", often described by modern Greek scholars as more or less a christianized version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognizable saints and December 6 finds many cities celebrating their patron saint.
On August 26, 1071 Romanus IV, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 1068 - 1071) faced Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks (reigned 1059 - 1072) in the Battle of Manzikert. The battle ended in humiliating defeat and capture for Romanus. As a result the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor to the invading Seljuk Turks. It would regain its control over Asia Minor during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus, (reigned 1081 - 1118). But early in his reign Myra was overtaken by the Islamic invaders. Taking advantage of the confusion sailors from Bari, Italy seized the remains of the saint over the objections of the Orthodox monks then caring for them. Returning to Bari they brought the remains with them. The remains arrived on May 9, 1087. Some observers have reported seeing myrrh exude from these relics.
Saint Nikolaus or St. Nicholas is celebrated in several Western European countries, see Saint Nicholas. His reputation for gift giving comes partly from a story of three young women who were too poor to afford a dowry for their marriages: as each reached a marriagable age, Nicholas surreptitiously threw a bag of gold into the house at night. Some versions of the legend say that the girls' father, trying to discover their benefactor, kept watch on the third occasion, but Nicholas dropped the third bag down the chimney instead. For his helping the "financially challenged", St. Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop are symbolic of the three sacks of gold. People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas. It should be noted perhaps that a nearly identical story is attributed by Greek folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is also considered a time of exchanging gifts.
The German-American Thomas Nast and other immigrants popularized their "Saint Nicholas" and other Christmas traditions in the USA. The tall skinny European St. Nicholas gradually became a fat, jolly, red cheeked old man, with a contracted version of "Saint Nicolas" as his name: Santa Claus. One theory for this unaccountable transition in appearance of St. Nicholas imagery may be the influence of Hotei; strikingly similar in nature and benevolence.
Due to the massive link with Christmas, Saint Nicholas is a patron saint of Christmas, as well as pawnbrokers (see above). He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.
See also, Nicholas of Tolentino