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The twofold character of Advent calls us to prepare for the remembering of the Word made Flesh at Christmas, and directs us to wait with alertness for Jesus’ second coming.
Nicholas, Bishop, Fourth Century
A few things are known for certain about Nicholas: he was born of wealthy parents; named bishop of Myra, a city on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey; became known for his holiness, zeal, charity, and miracles; and was imprisoned for his faith during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian.
To those few facts are added the colorful legends which have made him a favorite of young and old for centuries. Among the stories most often told about Nicholas is the account of the three sisters whose family had lost its wealth. To keep the girls from having to turn to prostitution, Nicholas, on three separate occasions, tossed a bag of gold through a window. This money became a dowry for each of the girls, and saved the family from ruin.
Miracles have also been attributed to Nicholas. He is said to have saved three innocent men from death by bravely defending them. Three imperial officials who witnessed this courageous act were later falsely accused of another crime and sentenced to death. In answer to their prayers, St. Nicholas appeared in a dream to the Emperor Constantine and to the officials' accuser, whereupon the three were freed.
After his death, St. Nicholas' popularity spread across Europe and the eastern Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, but his greatest popularity was in Russia. Before the Russian revolution at the turn of the twentieth century, that country supported a church, hospital, and hospice in Bari, Italy where St. Nicholas' relics are maintained. Together with St. Andrew the Apostle, he is the patron of Russia.
The custom of giving gifts to children in St. Nicholas' name originated in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Dutch Protestants who settled in New Amsterdam brought the tradition of St. Nicholas to America, though by this time he had been converted from a popular saint into a Nordic magician (Saint Nicholas became Sint Klaes, then Santa Claus).
As a result of his wide popularity around the world, St. Nicholas has been named patron of many countries and classes of people, including sailors in the East ("May St. Nicholas hold the tiller" was the way sailors wished each other a good voyage). In the United States (and many other countries), St. Nicholas is the patron of children, brides, bakers, brewers, coopers, and prisoners. An optional memorial may honor this saint on December 7.
Nicholas' message today: This saint was known for his charity, which is the key characteristic in the many legends which exist about him. These stories tell us not only to be charitable, but to seek justice for those who would otherwise become victims.