Nicholas of Myra
For many people around the world, the Advent season is associated with special traditions. In Germany, for example, children place a freshly cleaned boot in front of their front door on the eve of 6th December, St. Nicholas' Day, and hope that it will be filled with presents overnight. This custom goes back to one of the most popular saints in all of Christianity, namely St. Nicholas of Myra, who is associated with a custom kept alive today, not only in Germany but in many countries.
Although Nicholas is a very well-known saint, reliable historical information about his life is scarce, as it has been handed down exclusively in hagiographical form. The only consensus seems to be that Nicholas was the bishop of the Lycian town of Myra (Derme, Turkey) on the coast of Asia Minor in the first half of the 4th century. More detailed hagiographic accounts of the life of the holy bishop, which have survived, can only be found dating from the early 9th century onwards. Of these, the 'Vita per Michaelem' forms the basis for further Nicholas Vites, into which, however, incidents from the life of a later Lycian bishop with the same name (†564) were also woven. Accordingly, the hagiographic figure of Nicholas probably corresponds to a fusion of these two bishops.
A cult around the holy bishop, which had apparently already been established in the Eastern Mediterranean by the 6th century, is already easier to prove than the person. After all, the historiographer Procopius reports that Emperor Justinian (527-565) built a church dedicated to St. Nicholas in Constantinople (Proc. aed. 1, 6.). With a delay of about 200 years, the cult of the Lycian saint was also gradually able to assert itself in the West, although it developed there much more slowly than in the East. It was not until the 10th/11th century that Nicholas became one of the most popular saints in the Latin Church also. This may have been connected, among other things, with the transfer of the bishop's bones in 1087. In the course of this, it was merchants from Bari who illicitly stole the relics from Nicholas' tomb in Myra and took them to their city in Apulia, where they are said to lie in the Basilica of San Nicola to this day.
It is not surprising that many legends have been developed around such a popular and sought-after saint. For example, Nicholas would have saved the inhabitants of Myra from famine with a miraculous increase of grain, saved sailors from sinking as well as innocent people from the death penalty, thwarted revenge plans of an ancient goddess and even raised three dead boys from the dead. This highlights the parallel to the equally numerous patronages of St. Nicholas, who is considered the patron saint of children, prisoners, seafarers and merchants. The custom of the boot described at the beginning can also be traced back to such a legend. According to this, Nicholas passed a house one day where a man lived with his three daughters. Since the father had fallen into great poverty through no fault of his own, he could neither marry off the young women nor provide for them himself. Therefore, he saw no other way out than to place them in a brothel in order to be able to finance the necessities of life. However, St. Nicholas saved the three sisters from their fate by throwing pieces of gold through the window of their house at night, thus ensuring the women a dowry for marriage.
It is therefore the motif of the nightly gift-giving by St. Nicholas that motivates children today to put their boots on the doorstep and expect presents. And at the same time, it is the motif of a generous and gift-giving St. Nicholas in combination with his quality as the patron saint of children that ultimately forms the decisive basis for the popular figure of the modern Santa Claus. Thus it is apparent that St. Nicholas, who is commemorated on 6th December in both Western and Eastern churches, is a natural part of Advent for many people, especially children. In iconography, St. Nicholas is depicted in bishop's regalia and with three golden spheres or apples, and sometimes accompanied by the three boys raised from the dead.
Kevin Grotherr, M.A. (University of Hamburg)