In a time where fiction is stronger than truth, it is important to note the true history of this great saint.
St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated in the West on December 6 and December 19 by Eastern Christians following the Julian Calendar, has been long kept as both a holy day and a day of gift giving due to tales of the Saint’s uncommon generosity. Over the centuries, he has become a popular symbol of the Christmas season and inspired largely fictional depictions in the form of such characters as Sinterklass, Zinniklos, and Santa Claus.
Those knowledgeable of ecclesiastical history, however, will likely best remember St. Nicholas as the holy bishop of Mira in Lycia (the modern day Antalya Province in Turkey) who, at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, became so angry at the arch-heretic Arius that he struck him on the face. Further details on Nicholas’s life comprise the third reading at Matins according to the 1962 Breviarium Romanum.
Nicolas was born in the famous city of Patar in Lycia. From his childhood he fasted every Wednesday and Friday, and maintained this custom throughout his life. Deprived of his parents in early youth, he distributed his possessions to the poor. One example of his marvelous charity is this: he came to the aid of three girls whose virtue was endangered by providing a sum of money sufficient for their dowries. While on a pilgrimage to Palestine, he went on God’s command to Mira, the metropolitan see of Lycia, where the bishop had died. Here, contrary to all expectation he was elected to the see by a marvelous consensus of all the assembled bishops of the province. In the work of his episcopate he stood out as an example of all virtues. But when he defied the edict of Diocletian and Maximian by continuing to preach the truth of the Christian faith, he was thrown into prison, where he remained until Constantine became Emperor. He took part in the Council of Nicea, at which the Arian heresy was condemned. Returning to his own country, he died a holy death in Mira. His body was later transferred to Bari in Apulia and is there venerated as a most famous relic."
For Eastern Christians following the Byzantine Rite, St. Nicholas Day is kept as a Vigil-ranked feast, meaning that on the eve of the feast Vespers, Matins, and First Hour (Prime) are celebrated as a single service with special hymns, readings, and blessings assigned. Although the feast is not, strictly speaking, a holy day of obligation, many Greek Catholics and Eastern Orthodox make a special effort to attend church services for the Saint due to his historic importance in the Christian East. In fact, he is so honored in the East that the Octoechos (“Book of Eight Tones”), which is one of the central liturgical texts for the Byzantine Rite, contains hymns to St. Nicholas which are to be recited at the canonical hours every Thursday of the year. Moreover, St. Nicholas remains one of the most popular patrons for Eastern churches, particularly in Greece and among the Christians of the Middle East.
In closing, here is a sample of the hymns solemnly chanted at Byzantine Vespers for St. Nicholas. They not only recall the Saint’s heroic virtues, but also seek his intercession before the Throne of God.
Thy memory, O holy hierarch, hath shone forth like the sun, poetically illumining the hearts of the faithful; and celebrating it today with splendor, we cry out to thee in supplication: Rejoice, O might of chastity who, armed with the shield of abstinence, didst preserve the estate of thy soul intact! Rejoice, O pastor and teacher of thy Christian people! Rejoice, adornment of the Church, beauty of hierarchs, boast of monastics! O most blessed and all-sacred father Nicholas, unceasingly entreat Christ God, that He grant peace to the whole world and save our souls.
With what songs of hymnody shall we praise the holy hierarch, the opponent of impiety and champion of piety, the leader, great ally and teacher, who putteth to shame all the infamous, the destroyer of Arius and his minions? For his sake hath Christ, Who hath great mercy, cast down the arrogance of the enemy.
O blessed Nicholas, have pity on me who fall down before thee, I pray, and enlighten the eyes of my soul, O all-wise one, that in purity I may gaze upon the compassionate Bestower of Light."