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Saint Nicholas, generous and just miracle worker

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By Kimberly Bruce

"The stockings were hung by the chimney with care." Why? In hopes, of course, that St. Nicholas "soon would be there"!

This stanza from "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" is familiar to us all, but was there really a St. Nicholas, and did he actually leave things in stockings?

Saint Nicholas (feast day: Dec. 6) was, in fact, a real person and is a declared a saint in the Catholic Church. Born in Patara, Lycia, in Asia Minor (present-day southern Turkey) in the third century A.D., Nicholas was left an inheritance by his parents after their untimely deaths when he was just a boy. Raised Catholic, Nicholas took to heart our Lord's words to sell what you own and give to the poor (Mk 10:21), by expending all he had on those in need.

Ordained to the priesthood, legend has it that Nicholas became the bishop of Myra in the most unlikely of circumstances. The sitting bishop had died, and the priests of the city declared that the first person to enter the church on a particular morning would be named the new bishop. Enter the pious young Nicholas. He later was imprisoned and tortured under the Roman emperor, Diocletian, a ruthless ruler towards Christians. In 306 A.D., with the installation of Constantine as the new emperor, those imprisoned for Christianity, including Nicholas, were released.

Nicholas is well remembered for his role in the Church's first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, held in 325 A.D. A major outcome of this council's deliberations was the refutation of Arianism concerning the true nature of Christ. Nicholas not only protected the Church from this prolific heresy with his teaching, but he reportedly slapped the heretic, Arius, in the face, as well! Known also for his strong stance against paganism, he was responsible for tearing down many temples, including the shrine dedicated to the district's chief goddess, Artemis.

Stories about Nicholas' selfless generosity of heart, however, are the chief reasons he is so affectionately revered. Two of his most famous stories are as follows.

The first involved Nicholas' intervention on behalf of a father whose three unwed daughters were in danger of being sold into slavery due to the poor man's inability to provide marriage dowries for them. Nicholas is said to have, on three separate occasions, snuck up to a window in the family's home and thrown in a bag of gold to provide for each daughter's dowry. These bags of gold landed in the family's stockings or shoes, which were hanging by the fire to dry. On the third occasion, the father caught Nicholas in the act and copiously expressed his thankfulness to the benevolent Nicholas. Thus, the tradition of children leaving stockings out for St. Nick (aka "Santa Claus") to fill with special treats began.

The second story involved three falsely accused imperial officers slated to be put to death for treason by order of the emperor Constantine. On the night of their imprisonment, the three men prayed to God for Nicholas' intercession as they knew Nicholas to be a bishop of great righteousness and justice. That very night both the prefect and emperor had identical dreams in which Nicholas came to them ordering the release of the three innocent men. Both Constantine and the prefect compared their respective dreams in the morning and questioned the accused men. The men informed them that they had prayed to God for Nicholas' intercession on their behalf. The three officers were then released and sent to Nicholas with a request from Constantine asking for the bishop's prayers for peace in the world.

His great love for both adults and children has caused Nicholas to be renowned the world over. In Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Poland, it is St. Nicholas who delivers presents to children on the eve of his feast day, which is the traditional start to the Christmas season. This popular gift-bringing custom spreading to the West via Dutch settlers.

Nicholas died on Dec. 6in 343 A.D. in Myra. The Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Bari was built upon a tomb containing his bones that had been transferred from Myra. A substance, referred to as "manna," began coming forth from his bones upon his death, continuing to the present. This "manna" has been determined to be pure water directly coming from his bones, as no other outside source from which the water enters exists.

Many miracles have been associated with St. Nicholas' "manna" throughout the ages. Every year, since 1980, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, manna is extracted from Nicholas' bones, and with a delegate of the pope, other dignitaries, and the faithful present, a blessing is bestowed upon all with this cherished relic.

Saint Nicholas, generous and just miracle-worker of Christ, pray for us!

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