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Culture > Religion

submitted by Cleopatra Sclavos on 06.12.2006


I couldn't believe that there was nothing on the "religion" webpage in relation to St Nicholas! After all, he is one of the most important Orthodox saints & he IS Santa Claus (derived from the Dutch "SinterKlaas" - which sounds like "St.Nicholas" in Dutch).

As with all other saints, St. Nicholas is honoured on the day of his passing (6 Dec.) rather than on the day of his birth.

There are more than a few churches & chapels dedicated to the saint on Kythera. My personal favourite is the little chapel of Agios Nikolaos o Krasas is built on a rocky outcrop behind Myrtidia and facing the "Marmarokatergo" (marble ship). It is well worth a visit. Legend has it that a merchant caught in a stormy sea prayed to St. Nicholas and made a “tama” that he would build a church out of wine if he & his ship were saved. No doubt the merchant was saved because it is said that the mortar was mixed with wine instead of mortar. Hence, the name “Agios Nikolaos o krasas”.

So, in honour of my late father Nicholas Evangelos Sclavos (tou mavrou), below is some information about the saint.

C. 342

The veneration with which this saint has been honoured in both East and West, the number of altars and churches erected in his memory, and the countless stories associated with his name all bear witness to something extraordinary about him. Very few facts about his life are known yet the one fact of which we can be absolutely certain is that he was bishop of Myra (modern day Demre in the Antalya province, Turkey) in the fourth century.

According to tradition, St Nicholas was born at Patara, Lycia, a province of southern Asia Minor where St. Paul had preached & worked. Myra, the capital, was the seat of a bishopric founded by St. Nicander. The accounts of Nicholas given us by the Greek Church all say that he was imprisoned for approximately 5 years during the reign of Diocletian, whose persecutions, while they lasted, were waged with great severity. Some twenty years after this he appeared at the Council of Nicaea, to join in the condemnation of Arianism. In fact, it is said that St. Nicholas slapped Arian during the Council! According to some accounts, this action led to deprivation of his Episcopal insignia and imprisonment. However, many of the Bishops present at the Council were visited by God & the Virgin Mary in dreams and told to leave the Saint be as he acted out of love for God & Christ not anger and hate.

We are also informed that St. Nicholas died at Myra and was buried in his cathedral. St. Methodius, patriarch of Constantinople towards the middle of the ninth century, wrote a life of the saint in which he declares that "up to the present the life of the distinguished shepherd has been unknown to the majority of the faithful." Nearly five hundred years had passed since the death of the good St. Nicholas, and Methodius' account, therefore, had to be based more on legend than actual fact.

There is a great wealth of literature that has accumulated around St. Nicholas with many popular traditions in the main dating from medieval times.

We are told that St. Nicholas was raised by religious parents who set him to studying the sacred books at the age of five. His parents died while he was still young, leaving him with a comfortable fortune, which he resolved to use for works of charity.

One of the Saint’s most well-known acts of charity formed the basis of the Santa Claus legend. A citizen of Patara had lost all his money and his three daughters could not find husbands because of their poverty. In despair their father was about to commit them to a life of prostitution. When Nicholas heard of this, he took a bag of gold and at night tossed it through an open window of the man's house. Here was a dowry for the eldest girl, and she was quickly married. Nicholas did the same for the second but for the third he had to climb down the chimney as the father was watching by the window.

According to the literature, whilst in the city of Myra, the clergy and people were meeting together to elect a new bishop, and God directed them to choose him. This was at the time of Diocletian's persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century. The Greek writers go on to say that now, as leader, "the divine Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with other Christians. But when the great and religious Constantine, chosen by God, assumed the imperial diadem of the Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with them the illustrious Nicholas." St. Methodius adds that "thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison.".

Nicholas also took strong measures against paganism. He tore down many temples, among them one to the Greek goddess Artemis, which was the chief pagan shrine of the district.

Nicholas was also the guardian of his people in temporal affairs. The governor had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death. On the day fixed for their execution Nicholas stayed the hand of the executioner and released them. Then he turned to the governor and reproved him sternly. Three imperial officers (Nepotian, Ursus, and Herpylion) who were present on that day were imprisoned on false charges of treason by the prefect and an order was procured from the Emperor Constantine for their death. They remembered the bishop of Myra's passion for justice and prayed to God for his intercession. That night Nicholas appeared to Constantine in a dream, ordering him to release the three innocent officers. The prefect had the same dream, and in the morning the two men compared their dreams, then questioned the accused officers. On learning that they had prayed for the intervention of Nicholas, Constantine freed them and sent them to the bishop with a letter asking him to pray for the peace of the world. This account became wilder in the West with some commentators replacing the three officers with three murdered young boys who St. Nicholas restored to life!

There are accounts of the saint calming stormy seas & converting pirates who were planning to kill him during travels across the Mediterranean sea.

All accounts agree that St. Nicholas was buried in his Episcopal city of Myra. By the time of Justinian, some two centuries later, his feast was celebrated and there was a church built over his tomb. The ruins of this domed basilica were excavated in the nineteenth century.

The tremendous popularity of the saint is indicated by an anonymous writer of the tenth century who declares: "The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the farthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are erected in his honour."

In 1034 Myra was taken by the Saracens. Several Italian cities made plans to get possession of the relics of the famous Nicholas. The citizens of Bari finally in 1087 carried them off from the lawful Greek custodians and their Moslem masters. A new church was quickly built at Bari and Pope Urban II was present at the enshrining of the relics. Devotion to St. Nicholas now increased and many miracles were attributed to his intercession.

As a sign of the healing of the 900-year-old breach between Eastern and Western Christians, the Roman Catholic Church presented relics of Saint Nicholas to the Greek Orthodox Church during December 1972. The relics consisted of a fragment of the casket in which the Saint's body had been transported to Bari, tiny fragments of his skull resting on cotton and a vial of the holy myrrh. The relics, encased in a small gold reliquary fashioned for them in Athens, were enshrined at the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Flushing, New York. The ceremony was led by [now-retired] Archbishop Iakovos, the Greek Orthodox primate of North and South America, and the Most Reverend Francis Mugavero, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, New York.

The Orthodox church reveres and honours the historical St. Nicholas. In fact, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, children, and students in Greece, Russia and Serbia. In the West is honoured as a patron of a great variety of persons: children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans, labourers, travellers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, even thieves and murderers!

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