Answer to Prayer: Nicholas' Birth*

Birth scene
Detail: The Life & Miracles of Saint Nicholas
Artist: Alexander Boguslawski
St. Nicholas Center Collection

It was a very long time ago, during the last half of the third century AD, when a devout Christian couple lived in Patara, an important port on the Mediterranean coast of Lycia in Asia Minor (now in modern Turkey). St. Paul had visited Patara1 while making his missionary journeys and the Christian community was established there.

This couple, Theophanes2 and Nonna, deeply desired a child. As the years passed (and some say it was thirty long years), they prayed and wept, but still there was no child.

And so it was with great rejoicing and deep gratitude that a son, who they named Nicholas, was born. Theophanes and Nonna chose the name in honor of the child's priest-uncle, Nicholas, who came to bless the baby. This uncle was abbot of a monastery in nearby Xanthos. Nicholas was a familiar name among Christians, though not common, as a man named Nicholas was one of the first chosen to serve as a deacon in Jerusalem.3

Nicholas was born to parents who were "devoted Christians, not so poor as to be scorned by others, but neither so rich as to be boastful; they had enough to support themselves and still give to the poor."4 Young Nicholas grew in an atmosphere that allowed him to flourish—mentally, physically, and spiritually.

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The festival of the Nativity of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker from Myra in Lycia is observed in the Russian Orthodox Church on July 29, or August 11th on the Julian calendar. 

Nativity Festival service in Russian

Nicholas birth is also traditionally given as March 15, AD 270.

The traditional birth narratives for Nicholas follow patterns established (hagiographic conventions) for the lives of saints whose purpose was to establish the holiness of the saint, rather than provide literally factual information. And so Nicholas is sometimes portrayed as miraculously standing in the bath immediately after birth and refusing his mother's breast on fast days.

  1. Acts 21.2
  2. Also known as Epiphanius or Epiphanes and Johanna or Johane
  3. 3. Acts 6.5
  4. 4 From an ancient source, quoted by Vincent A. Yzermans in Wonderworker: The True Story of How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus, 1994, ACTA Publications.

This episode—naming the parents and sometimes including the newborn standing in the bath or later in the baptismal font—, though it has been regarded as part of the St. Nicholas of Myra tradition, is actually from the life of St. Nicholas of Sion. The two Nicholases lived two centuries apart: Nicholas of Myra in the 4th century and Nicholas of Sion in the 6th.

Around AD 900 noted Byzantine hagiographer Simon Metaphrastes added a few episodes to his account of the life of Nicholas of Myra that were actually from the life of Nicholas of Sion, Archimandrite of Sion, Bishop of Pinara.

He identified the Church of Myra with the Church of Sion (Nicholas of Sion's monastery) and the two lives were eventually merged. This intermingling of the two saints has led some scholars to doubt that Nicholas of Myra existed at all as they found it impossible to reconcile the conflicts and impossibilities found in the mixed up accounts purported to be the same person. This accretion of the two lives continued until the "Life of St Nicholas of Sion" was discovered in the 18th century. Even though scholars have sorted it out, the stories live on in the traditions and iconography that has grown up around the historical Nicholas of Myra.

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