My Mother ran across an article in her local paper about Saint Nicholas who is the patron Saint of Sailors and suggested that I might want to write about this on my blog.
Saint Nicholas as a young man:
She was right of course. This is a real person that was born around 270 AD in Patara, Turkey. Patara was Greek at the time of his birth and lies on the Southeastern coast of Turkey on the Mediterranean. This coast is known for the longest uninterrupted beach in Turkey and is a protected nesting ground for turtles.
Saint Nicholas was born to wealthy parents that were devoutly Christian. Saint Nicholas’ parents died when he was young leaving him with a sizable inheritance. His Christian upbringing instilled in him the belief that he should divest himself of all worldly goods and give to the needy.
In keeping with his beliefs the young Saint Nicholas gave away most of his inheritance. Saint Nicholas was known for his secret benevolence and dozens of stories about his generosity are part of history.
One story tells of a poor man with three daughters, who as a result of his poverty, would have no dowry and had a life of prostitution as their only option. It’s said that Saint Nicholas heard of this man’s situation and that he bestowed secretly three bags of gold coins on the household.
There are different stories on how the coins were given including that the three bags were thrown through the window in the night, that gold coins were left in the shoes of each of the daughters, that the bags were left at the house on three separate nights, and that the bags appeared three years apart on the eve of each girl’s coming of age.
This is how the tradition of giving chocolate gold coins and oranges (representing gold coins) on December 6th came about.
His secret gift giving is how he now has become identified with our modern-day Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas the Patron Saint of Sailors:
Now what about this patron saint of sailors belief. Well Saint Nicholas, said to have been a sailor and fisherman himself, is often called upon by mariners who are in danger of drowning or being shipwrecked.
One story recounts Saint Nicholas sailing from Alexandria, where he was studying, to Myra when he is said to have saved the life of a sailor on the voyage. During the voyage the ship met with a storm that caused the sailor to fall from the rigging. Saint Nicholas took the sailor to a church in Myra when they reached port.
The bishop of that church had just passed away and the church was looking for a new bishop. The sailor was recounting the story of the courageous man who saved his life and the church elders elected Nicholas as their new bishop.
Another story tells of Nicholas returning by sea from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where the ship was threatened by a mighty storm that terrified the sailors. The story says that Nicholas prayed calmly and that the winds and seas subsided and all were saved.
He is known as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need including sailors, fishermen, merchants, falsely accused prostitutes, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers, scholars, orphans, laborers, travelers, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, children, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and murderers. I must say an interesting group of vocations.
Another story tells of a great famine in Myra from 311 to 312 AD. During the famine a ship was in port with a payload of wheat intended for the Emperor of Constantinople. Nicholas was said to have implored the sailors to unload a portion of the cargo to help those suffering in Myra assuring them that they would not be punished.
The sailors were reluctant to do so as the wheat would be weighed upon arriving in Constantinople and had to weigh the same as when it had been originally loaded aboard. The sailors were astonished to find that when they arrived in Constantinople the weight of the wheat was the same as when originally loaded aboard even though they had left two year’s worth of wheat in Myra.
Because of these stories, many seaports built chapels in the name of Saint Nicholas and he became the patron saint of sailors. Many sailors returning from voyages visit these chapels and leave tokens, including sailcloth, to express their gratitude for having returned safely.
In some places of the world instead of wishing a sailor good luck on a voyage, they say “May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller”.
Today many cities claim Saint Nicholas as their patron saint including where my Father was born, Barranquilla Colombia. Other cities include Bari, Italy, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Beit Jala in the West Bank of Palestine, Liverpool, England, Lorraine, France and all of Russia
Saint Nicholas the Tradition:
So when is Saint Nicholas Day? December 6th and this date is celebrated in many European countries in various ways. In the low countries, sailors and ex-sailors descend on the harbor towns to celebrate their patron in churches.
Medieval nuns were also said to leave baskets of food and clothes on the doorsteps of the needy on the night of December 6th.
In many European countries shoes are left out on December 5th in hopes of finding them filled with candy and trinkets the next morning.
Here in the US there are many cities that celebrate Saint Nicholas Day including, Fredericksburg, Texas, St. Louis, Missouri, Cincinnati, Ohio, and nearest to me, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In these strongly German influenced cities, the tradition is for children to put out stockings on December 5th and to wake up on the 6th to find them filled with fruit, candy and other small trinkets.
This tradition is said to have been derived from the sailors of the low country who are said to have stopped on their way back from the harbor church celebrations to buy small trinkets from their families to be given in advance of Christmas.
By the way, if children find were to find a switch, potato or lump of coal instead of a treat, they have been naughty and have three weeks to amend their ways before Christmas.
Saint Nicholas Message:
It’s better to give than receive.
If you’d like to give a sailor a nice gift for Christmas, here’s a beautiful Saint Nicholas Charm that should fit the bill.
Happy Saint Nicholas Day!
See you on the water,
Sail Away Girl