The Feast of Saint Nicholas

December 6 is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas is believed to have been born at Patara in Lycia, a province in what is now Turkey, during the third century. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. 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. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made bishop of Myra while still a young man. He became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Nicholas suffered for his faith and was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, where he vigorously repudiated Arianism. He died on December 6, A.D. 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.

Saint Nicholas' tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. As Myra was a seaport, sailors heard the stories of the saint's shrine and carried them to many distant places. If a town were fortunate enough to host such a significant religious site, it enjoyed considerable commercial benefit because pilgrims needed to be housed, fed, and otherwise provided for. After Myra fell under the control of the Seljuks, who were not sympathetic to Christian faith, Italian merchants in both Venice and Bari, saw an opportunity to bring such advantage to their cities. Their motives were opportunistic but also spiritual, as there was real fear that pilgrimage could become difficult and dangerous or that the shrine might be desecrated.

Early in 1087, three ships with sailors and merchants from Bari stopped in Myra and visited Nicholas' tomb. The monks showed the Barians where the saint’s body lay but became suspicious and questioned the visitors about their intentions. The Barians managed to break open the tomb with an iron bar and spirited the bones away to the ship, escaping just ahead of the pursuing townspeople. On the voyage back to Bari, the men stopped at a nearby port to make a beautiful box to hold the saint's relics. When they arrived in Bari on May 9, 1087, the townspeople thronged to the harbor to welcome the saint's remains. The returning men made a solemn vow to build a magnificent church to honor Saint Nicholas.

The crypt was completed by October 1089 and Pope Urban II laid the relics of Saint Nicholas beneath the crypt's altar, consecrating a shrine that became one of medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centers. The main church was built in 10 years, but it wasn't until the middle of the 12th century that the imposing and majestic Basilica di San Nicola was complete. It is a particularly fine example of Romanesque architecture and served as a prototype for many other churches and cathedrals.

Pilgrims to Bari were particularly attracted because the tomb continued to exude the manna of the saint just as it had in Myra. From the earliest time, Saint Nicholas devotees have asked for protection and health in mind and body through the use of the manna. It was diluted and made available in bottles decorated with images of the saint. Over the centuries, a unique art of painting these glass bottles developed in the region of Apulia, where Bari is located. Every year the transfer of the Nicholas relics to Bari is celebrated with a great festival, culminating in the extraction of the manna by the rector of the basilica.

Since 1951 the basilica has been home to a community of Dominican friars and is now an active ecumenical center. In 1966, at one side of the crypt, an Orthodox chapel was established to provide for Orthodox liturgy. The ecumenical vision of the Dominican brothers sees Saint Nicholas as everyone's saint, serving to bring together Christians of many varying expressions from both East and West, to worship God in unity, confessing one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In July 2018, Pope Francis chose Bari as the site of a meeting with religious leaders from all the Middle East denominations to pray for peace in the Middle East and an end to the conflict in Syria.

Saint Nicholas is venerated as the patron saint of sailors in the East, as sailors off the coast of Myra often invoked his aid to bring them safely to port. In some places sailors, instead of wishing one another luck, say, "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller." In the West, he is said to have saved three impoverished girls from being sold into slavery by giving them dowries, which could be one reason why he became the patron saint of children and also why parents in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands adopted the custom of giving gifts to their children on his feast day. Prisoners and others wrongly condemned are Saint Nicholas' third major category of patronage. It reveals his strong concern for justice, especially for innocent victims. 

This saint is most popular in Russia, where with Saint Andrew the Apostle he is the patron saint of the nation. So many Russian pilgrims came to Bari, Italy, before the Russian Revolution that the Russian government supported a church, a hospital, and a hospice there.

Nicholas is also the patron saint of Greece, Sicily, and the province of Lorraine in France.

Dianne Green