St. Nicholas, Nikolaos, is the patron saint of Greece, where his primary role is as the protector of sailors and seamen. At Christmas small fishing boats honor St. Nicholas, especially in the islands, with decorations of blue and white lights. Tradition has it that his clothes are soaked with brine, his beard always dripping with seawater, and his face covered with perspiration because he has been fighting storms to reach sinking ships and save men from drowning.
Decorated boats are the most traditional holiday symbol in Greece. Such boats are placed in a town’s main square, honoring St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. December 6, St. Nicholas Day, is the day many people begin their Christmas decorating. Christmas boats are particularly popular in seaports and the islands, where the boats are a symbol of brave sailors returning home.
Small wooden decorated boats were placed inside homes, close to the fireplace, pointing towards the center of the home, never toward the door. These boats were a welcome for returning seamen. Children made paper and wood boats, carrying them to receive treats as they went about singing carols in their neighborhoods.
Greek ships carry an icon of St. Nicholas, as he is regarded as master of wind and tempest. Sailors light a candle before the icon, praying for safe passage. When a ship is in danger the captain prays making a solemn promise to bring a tamata, a Greek ex-voto, of a small ship of silver, gold, or carved of wood, if they make port safely. On return from such a voyage, the captain and sailors take the ex-voto, representing their ship, to church. In thanksgiving for their safety, they place it before a St. Nicholas icon. It is given as testimony to protection received, not as intercession for future aid.
The Greek Navy also pays tribute to St. Nicholas, the sailors’ patron saint, with a special ceremony at the Hellenic Naval Academy.
Revered as the great protector, St. Nicholas’ feast is one of great devotion. Pilgrims travel to Naxos and Faros. Traditional dishes of fried cod with garlic sauce are served. The Greek Navy pays tribute to the patron saint of sailors with a special ceremony at the Hellenic Naval Academy.
Devotion to Saint Nicholas is also shown by the many small white chapels that dot the coastline. These chapels, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, have been built in gratitude to God for protection on the seas. As nearly every island family has members working in shipping, the navy, fishing or sponge diving, it is customary for folks passing one of these chapels to enter, light a candle, and pray for their friends’ and relatives’ protection from turbulent seas. Many families name a son “Nikolaos” in honor of the saint.
St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, is also part of Epiphany celebrations held by the sea. Priests bless ships anchored in harbor, in St. Nicholas’ name, asking him to watch over each one, bringing it safely through storms and back to harbor. Ships then blow their whistles and church bells ring as a cross is thrown into the water. Sailors dive to see who can retrieve the cross.
St. Nikolaos the Wonderworker, is also called upon to preside in spirit over Orthodox meetings seeking unity among churches.