Feasts in honor of St. Nicholas
Three feasts are observed in honor of St. Nicholas every year. His primary feast is December 6, the anniversary of his death. The translation of his relics from Myra to Bari is commemorated on May 9. And his nativity is celebrated on July 29.
December 6: The Feast of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas died peacefully on December 6, 343. In the Orthodox Church, the day on which a saint dies is considered their birth into everlasting life. So it’s the day of their death that is kept as the major feast of a saint.
In the Orthodox Church, the feast of St. Nicholas is observed with great solemnity, even though we know very little about him. He didn’t leave volumes of theological writings, as St. Basil the Great or St. John Chrysostom did. He wasn’t responsible for evangelizing an entire nation, as St. Patrick or St. Nina did. He didn’t get involved in imperial politics. The only thing we know about him for sure is that he was Bishop of Myra in the first part of the fourth century.
Yet he is one of the most universally beloved saints. One of the hymns from the festal service attributes this to his practical virtues – that is, his mercy towards the poor and his compassion towards the afflicted.
He delivered food to people who were facing famine and starvation. He delivered people who had been unjustly accused of death. He arranged dowries for a poor man’s daughters, so that they wouldn’t be forced into prostitution.
We honor him, not because of his theology, or his asceticism, or his evangelism, or any such thing. We honor him because he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and protected the innocent. Things we can all do, with the help of God and by the prayers of St. Nicholas.
May 9: The Translation of the Relics of St. Nicholas
In the year 1087, Turks had ravaged Myra, and many of the people had fled. Some dreamed that St. Nicholas told them to come home, or he would leave them. But the Myrans stayed away.
As far away as Italy, people were afraid that the Turks would destroy the relics of St. Nicholas. Or, worse, people from some other Christian city would steal the relics away.
As a group of men from Bari planned to go get the relics, they learned that a group from Venice had the same plans. So the men from Bari moved quickly. When they arrived in Myra on April 11, they verified that there were no Turks at the cathedral. Then 47 heavily armed men left the ships and went to get the relics. A like number stayed behind, to guard the ships.
With weapons and lies, the men of Bari got the saint’s holy body, took it to their ship, and sailed away.
On May 9, they arrived in Bari. Immediately, there were miraculous healings and violent deaths. The sailors had vowed to build a magnificent new church to house the holy body of St. Nicholas. The archbishop wanted to take the body to his own cathedral. Disputation turned into arguments, and the arguments turned violent. Before long, two adolescent boys had been killed, one from each side in the battle.
According to Nicephorus, who recorded these events just days after they occurred, the people stopped fighting and carried the boys “with highest honor to the monastery, with the armed men and other people chanting Kyrie eleison and singing other hymns.” The people on both sides of the dispute believed that God would place their souls in eternal blessedness because “both died in their very commendable quest for the holy corpse.”
July 29: The Nativity of St. Nicholas
Nobody knows for sure exactly when St. Nicholas was born. Most sources place his birth as early as the year 270, or as late as 280. According to Roman Catholic tradition, he was born on March 15. But the Nativity of St. Nicholas is observed in the Orthodox Church on July 29.
We do know that St. Nicholas was born in Patara, a trading city on the coast of Lycia. Lycia is now part of Turkey, and Patara is in ruins. Nevertheless, when St. Nicholas was a child, it was a prosperous city, and St. Nicholas’s parents, Nonna and Theophanes, were both pious and wealthy. Nicholas was their only child. He was named for his uncle, Nicholas of Patara, who was either the local bishop, or the abbot of a nearby monastery, or perhaps both.
By the middle ages, there were stories of miracles that attended St. Nicholas’s infancy. Some said he nursed only from his mother’s right breast, or that he nursed only once (or not at all) on Wednesdays and Fridays. Some said he stood, unsupported, for three hours in the baptismal font, to glorify the Holy Trinity.
Those sorts of stories were meant to make the holiness of the saint absolutely clear to those listening to the story. But St. Nicholas didn’t need such stories. Yes, he was a wonderworker. Yes, he was a confessor who suffered torture and persecution for the sake of Christ. Yes, he defended Trinitarian doctrine against the Arians. But, as one of the prayers to St. Nicholas says, his splendor was in his practical virtues: his goodness, his kindness, his willingness to help anyone who asked. That is his example. That is why he is honored throughout all the world.
Symbols and Images: Saint Nicholas appears in countless paintings, icons, and other images. How do you know it’s him?
An Unwilling Bishop: Saint Nicholas planned to live his life out in obscurity and poverty and prayer. God had other plans for him.
Buy the Book: The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
Shoes or stockings? Horse or sleigh? Does St. Nicholas visit on December 6 or on Christmas Eve? Will a little girl’s prayer be answered? When Elizabeth has to stay at Catherine’s house, she’s worried about her grandmother, and worried that St. Nicholas won’t find her. The grownups, though, are worried about snow.
Celebrate the wonder of St. Nicholas Day through the magic of a book: The Saint Nicholas Day Snow.