Ukrainian Orthodoxy: December 6 (Gregorian) or December 19 (Julian)
By Alexander Roman
St Nicholas Center Collection
Is there a St. Nick?
If we understand him to be jovial Santa Claus of parades and department stores, then perhaps we may have outgrown him as we've 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 Orthodox Christian Bishops thought this action was unbecoming, and therefore immediately censured Nicholas by taking from him the symbols of his episcopal office, his Pallium ("naplechnyk") 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 19, according to the Old Calendar, to this day. This depiction of St. Nicholas has been the most popular in his iconography ever since.
Children visiting St. Nicholas
Photo: Mike Wilk,
Ukrainian Christmas, by Mary Ann Woloch Vaughn; permission pending
In addition to his strong witness to Orthodox 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 over-joyed 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. Miraculous Icons of St Nicholas abound, including one in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral at Tarpon Springs, Florida.
The coming of St Nicholas on the eve of his Feast was always a big celebration in my extended family. My uncle, Basil, came from the town of Mykolayiv in Ukraine that was named for St Nicholas. He was the one who always got to dress up as the Saint. The event is deeply ingrained in my soul, and always will be.
As we children played on the eve of December 18th, 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 honoured guest. Anticipation gave way to anxiety as everyone lined up on either side of the main doors and prayerbooks 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 honour 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.
I can still hear those bells on his sleigh as he went off. . . .
Years later, I too got to play St Nicholas for an orphanage, mainly children from Ukraine. What could I do to make their visit with the Saint special, just like it was made so for me years back?
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 Saviour, 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.
As my great hobby is the study of saints, as each child came up and his or her name was read out, I could tell them a little about their patron and (my memory was better then) the patron's feastday. A teacher stood behind me to tell me that this was all very nice, but to hurry up. I told her that she couldn't give orders to St Nicholas . . .
I recognized some children and could also tell them their birthday and other things. They later went home and told their parents that, no doubt about, they had actually seen the REAL St Nicholas.
When they told me about this later, I asked them what was it that so totally convinced them - my telling them their birthdays, their namedays, their parents' names? As it turned out, the children said I was the real article because I told them about God and Christ. Only a real bishop would talk about that.
It then occurred to me that this was the theme that my uncle Basil emphasized as well, years ago. He had taught me well!
In his Orthodox Faith and holy compassion, St Nicholas still brings us the greatest gift of all that is Christ the Saviour!
By Dr. Alexander Roman, used by permission.