St Nicholas, perhaps the most popular saint in Christendom, was born in Panthera of Syria, in Asia Minor, in the third century, of rich and pious parents. For many years they had been married, but no offspring had come to bless their union, though they had prayed with tears that a child might be granted them, and had given alms without stint in the hope of thus meriting the favour of heaven.
At last, in reward for their life of charity and patience, an angel appeared to Johane and announced to her the birth of a son.
When the baby had safely been born, that amazing child stood up in the basin in which he was being bathed, and for two mortal hours, with hands joined and eyes raised to heaven, returned thanks to God for His goodness in having brought him into the world. Then, it being Friday, he refused nourishment, and thereafter faithfully abstained from his mother's breast until after the setting of the sun on Wednesdays and Fridays, the fast days of the Church.
Nicholas was but a youth when he was ordained a priest, and soon after lost both father and mother, inheriting a vast fortune. But he looked upon himself only as the steward of God in his disposal of it, and immediately set about distributing his wealth among such of the needy as came to his notice.
A certain rich noble of Panthera at this time lost all his money, and so utterly destitute had he become that he not only had no marriage portion wherewith to dower his three daughters, but not even one small coin with which to buy bread for them, and being apparently a gentleman of limited imagination or resourcefulness, the only way that presented itself to him to keep them from starvation was to sacrifice them to a life of shame. He wept and sorrowed much over his three innocent girls, but what, he asked himself, was he to do?
All of which was very sad. Hearing of it, Nicholas went by night to the man's house, while the maidens slept and their father kept mournful vigil. The sky was overcast, but through a sudden rift in the clouds the moonlight gleamed for a moment upon an open casement. Advancing cautiously toward it, Nicholas, reaching over the high sill, dropped in a purse filled with gold. The money fell at the father's feet and his joy was boundless. The well-filled purse portioned the eldest daughter; the other two, however, were in as sore straits as ever, until, soon after, Nicholas repeated the gift in the same fashion. This time the second daughter was portioned. When Nicholas went a third time to give the purse which should dower the third daughter; the father, who was watching to discover who had been such a Providence to him and his beloved girls, hastened out and seized him by his robe, exclaiming: "O Nicholas, servant of God, why seek to hide thyself?" Then he thanked him with effusion. Nicholas charged him to tell no one, but of course he did—or we should not know the story to this day.
In course of time, Nicholas determined to go to the Holy Land. Having set sail, he was overtaken by a great storm in which a sailor fell from the mast and was killed, but Nicholas by his prayers restored him to life—seeing which the other sailors implored him to still the tempest and so save them all from certain death. He rebuked the winds and the sea; both obediently subsided, and all was calm.
When he returned from Palestine, Nicholas dwelt in Myra, humble and unknown. It was then that the Bishop of Myra died, and one of the clergy was informed by a revelation from Heaven that the first man presenting himself at the church door on the following morning was appointed by God to be bishop. According to his custom, Nicholas entered the church to pray at dawn. There he was met and, in spite of his protests, was ordained bishop.
Soon after, the land was afflicted with a famine, and Nicholas's diocese was suffering extremest hunger, when he learned that three ships loaded with grain were in the harbour. He descended to the ships and asked the captains to sell him each a hundred hogsheads of grain.
They demurred: "The grain was weighed at Alexandria, and will be weighed again at Constantinople; we dare not dispose of any of the wheat destined for the imperial granaries."
But Nicholas said: "If you will do as I ask, you will find that by the Grace of God your cargoes will not be diminished," which, though incredible, proved to be true, for when the captains reached their destination their cargoes measured the same amount as when they had left Alexandria, while Nicholas, by miraculously multiplying his own allowance, had not only enough to feed his people for the year, but enough to furnish seed to sow the fields for the following season.
There was, at this time, an uprising in Phrygia, which caused the Emperor Constantine to send three of his tribunes, Nepotian, Ursyn, and Apollyn, to quell the disturbance. Nicholas bade them to dine with him, hoping to win leniency from them for his people. While they were seated at table word came to Nicholas that the consul, bribed by some enemy, had ordered the beheading of three innocent ladies. Rising from the table, followed by his three guests, Nicholas hastened to the place of execution. Not a moment too soon, for the victims, with bandaged eyes, were kneeling before the headsman, whose bared blade was already brandished over their bent backs. Snatching the sword away and throwing it from him, Nicholas commanded that the prisoners be released. Neither the headsman, the consul, nor any of his minions dared disobey him; they, on the contrary, tried to placate him and win his pardon, which they with great difficulty obtained. The three tribunes went their ways much impressed by the power and what we might now call the efficiency of the excellent bishop.
Upon their return to Constantinople they found that evil tongues had been busy in their absence, and that they were in such disfavour that soon they were cast into prison, and were to be executed by order of the Emperor. Their discouragement was complete until Nepotian, remembering how Nicholas had delivered the innocent, proposed to his friends that they should all kneel down and pray for his intercession. Nicholas immediately appeared to them in a vision and allayed their fears. Next he appeared to Constantine, and said to him: "Arise in haste and command that the three tribunes be not executed, or I shall pray God to move a battle against thee in which thou shalt be overthrown and shalt be made meat for the beasts!"
The astonished Emperor demanded: "Who art thou that enterest my palace by night and darest say such words to me?"
"I am Nicholas, Bishop of Myra," replied the Saint.
Constantine sent for the imprisoned tribunes and asked them if they knew aught of this same Nicholas. They told him with enthusiasm of his sanctity, and of his miracles and great power.
The Emperor, enormously impressed, released them, saying: "Go forth, I charge you, bear jewels to this man, and entreat him that he threaten me no more, but pray unto our Lord for me and for my realm."
He furthermore sent Nicholas as a gift a copy of the Gospels written in letters of gold, and bound in covers studded with pearls and precious stones, convinced that it was the part not only of courtesy but of wisdom to be on good terms with the Bishop of Myra.
But quite the nicest thing Nicholas ever did was in the time of the aforementioned famine: he was travelling through a forest on one of his many errands of mercy, when he came to an inn. Tired and hungry, he asked for lodging and food, which the smiling host promised should be promptly forthcoming, though, to be sure, provisions were so scarce in these hard days of famine that had he not been a provident and farsighted man he would at this trying juncture have had nothing to offer his honoured guest. With many words of a like effect, the innkeeper was laying the table and bringing dishes from the cupboard. He finally with a flourish set before Nicholas a fine plate of salted meat.
Instead of beginning to eat, St Nicholas paused for a long moment, looking fixedly at the dish. Then he looked at his host. Next he held the dish to his nose, and again glanced sharply at the man before him. Lastly he rose from the table, leaving the food untouched.
"Where is the rest of this most excellent salted meat?" he asked.
"Good father, it is in a tub in the cellar, but there is not much, I do assure thee. Is there not enough for thee? I will fetch more . . "
"Nay, lead me to the tub," said Nicholas, quietly. The now trembling host led the Saint to the cellar.
There stood the tub.
St Nicholas, approaching it, made the sign of the Cross over it, and . . . three little boys whom the wicked innkeeper had slain and minced and salted and peppered and spiced and pickled, sprang joyously out of it and into the arms of the Saint, who soon restored them to their grieving mother—and she a widow!
All of which goes to tell why St Nicholas is the patron Saint of children (especially little boys), of orphans, sailors, captives, pawnbrokers, and the poor; guardian of young maidens; defender of the downtrodden, and in general and always the benign protector of the weak against the strong..