Advent Calendar for Grown-ups

by Paul Bommer

DECEMBER 6 St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas
Illustration by Paul Bommer
Used by permission

St Nicholas was the Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey) in the early 4th Century AD. Many miracles are attributed to his intercession and, over the centuries, he became a hugely popular saint. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas (St Nick). In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. His feast day is to-day, December 6th. Happy St Nick's Day!

Saint Nicholas is the Patron Saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, pawnbrokers, children, and students (amongst other things) throughout Christendom. He is shown here in classical episcopal attire, with a few of the symbols assigned to him on the right—the 3 golden balls (pawnbrokers), a ship (sailors) and the infants in a barrel (children).

The most famous story about him involves helping out a poor man with three daughters. The father was so poor that he couldn't afford a dowry for his three girls—in those days it would have meant they remained unmarried and possibly be forced into prostitution. St Nick interceded by secretly donating 3 purses of gold coins over 3 nights, one for each of the 3 daughters. In some stories he threw the purses in through a window to avoid being identified as the donor, in others he dropped the money down the chimney, where it landed, plop, into the stocking of one of the girls. Hence the pawnbroker's balls, Christmas stockings and gift-giving associated with the saint.

Another legend tells how a terrible famine struck the land and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. Hence the symbol of kids in a barrel or vat (I have only shown 2 not 3 as I ran our of space)! And hence St Nick's association with children.

However, it is likely that the legend grew up from a misinterpretation of ancient icons and images of the saint where he is shown baptising heathens in a font. To show reverence for the Saint, the men being christened were shown small, and over time, mis-read as being nippers in brine. (Misinterpretation of icons happened a lot in the past it seems—Google St Agatha, Patron Saint of Bell-ringers to see another example!)

From Paul Bommer: Illustration, design & Print-making. Used by permission.

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