Saint Nicholas, whose feast we celebrate today, the patron saint of Greece, Russia and many cities in Western Europe, is one of the most popular Christian saints, due to the many miracles attributed to him both during his lifetime and after his death, often called “Nikolaos the Wonderworker” and, by tradition, a bearer of gifts for children.
Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Mira (Lycia), was born in the city of Patara in Asia Minor in the latter half of the 3rd century. During the first ecumenical council held in Nicaea in 325, he was acknowledged as a great defender of Orthodoxy. The council condemned Arius’s heresy, according to which Jesus Christ is not the Son of God, but merely a human being with supernatural powers. According to tradition, worried by a potential fracture within the Church, the saint slapped the heretic Arius. Legend has it this is the source of the custom of slapping naughty children with a rod on December 6, as a warning. According to another tradition, the rod should be made of apple-wood and, if the branch kept in a vase blossoms by Christmas day, this means the saint “secured” forgiveness for the one slapped with the rod. Saint Nicholas was well aware, however, that a rebuke should be accompanied by charity and comfort. Thus, he made many gifts to the poor, brought comfort to those in distress and healed the sick, by God’s grace.
In Romanian tradition, Saint Nicholas is represented on a white horse, symbolic of the snow which falls in December; he is believed to keep watch on the sun, which tries to slide past him on its way to the Northern lands, to bereave the world of light and heat; he is a spy for the devil; he rules over water, being also the patron saint of sailors, whom he keeps from drowning; he defends soldiers in battle, for which reason soldiers of old would invoke his protection; he assists widows, orphans and poor maidens who hope to find a husband. Fruit-tree twigs are usually laid in water on Saint Nicholas in the hope these would blossom, which is taken as a good omen, suggesting that one’s sins have been forgiven.
December 6 is a religious holiday in Germany, France and Holland as well. On this day, children receive presents and alms are given to the poor.