The Life of St. Nicholas

Happy feast day!

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas… which is one of my kids’ favorite feast days. Last night, they put their shoes out for St. Nicholas, and they were not disappointed! 

The littlest one is a little bit too young for candy!

St. Nicholas is often thought of merely the equivalent of Santa Claus. Which is sort of true, because the name Santa Claus is just a variation of St. Nicholas. However! When we say the name “Santa Claus” we tend to think of the image that was popularized by the Coca Cola. And by that, I mean this image:

Yes, our culture’s vision of Santa Claus was created by Coca Cola as a marketing campaign. It says a lot about our culture, doesn’t it?

So! Let’s take back our culture and try to rediscover the man who was St. Nicholas.

Take a look at this icon of St. Nicholas, which is an icon of St. Nicholas surrounded by images of his life.

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker with Scenes From His Life, c. 1850s. Private collection. Via
St. Nicholas the Wonderworker with Scenes From His Life, c. 1850s. Private collection.

Let’s take a look at these various images, shall we?

The Birth of St. Nicholas

The Birth of St. Nicholas

The birth of any baby is a cause for celebration! But St. Nicholas’s parents waited a long time for him, struggling with infertility woes all along. Then, he came! And tradition says that, at his birth, his mother was miraculously healed from an illness that she had. 

The Baptism of St. Nicholas

The Baptism of St. Nicholas

Tradition states that, as a newborn, he stood, without help, for three hours in the baptismal font when he was baptized. That’s a long time! 

And why did he do this? Simple: he wanted to honor the Holy Trinity. 

(The fact that he did this in honor of the Holy Trinity is important, so remember this.)

St. Nicholas’s Childhood

St. Nicholas as a Child

St. Nicholas loved attending church. He stayed there all the time. His uncle, a bishop, was impressed by his piety and eventually ordained him to priesthood, where he served as a kind and loving priest, giving away the wealth that he had inherited to the poor. 


St. Nicholas giving out presents!

This is what St. Nicholas is most famous for, and the reason why we started the tradition of giving out presents!

Once, a poor, desperate man with three daughters had no dowry to marry off his daughters. And this was a huge problem, since they were at the brink of starvation and barely had enough money for food for the family. If he could marry them off, that gave them a chance for a better life where they might eat and not be mired in poverty. But, without a dowry, nobody would marry them. So, the man decided that his daughters must go out and earn the money somehow for food — through prostitution.

St. Nicholas, taking care to be anonymous, slipped some gold — enough for one decent dowry — through an open window, thus allowing for the daughter to be married out of poverty and into a honorable home. And he did this for the second, sneaking the money to the man through an open window. 

It was only with the third daughter where the window was locked and he couldn’t drop the money off that way. So, he climbed through the roof and dropped the money through the chimney. 

And thus! We remember that generosity every Christmas.

…did you think this was the end of the highlights of his remarkable life? Because trust me: it’s not.

The Chosen Bishop

As a priest, St. Nicholas traveled, including to the Holy Land, eager to seek his vocation. But the Holy Spirit told him to go back home, as it would be there where he would be needed.

And he was! As it so happened, an archbishop died. After convening together, the bishops decided to elect the newest archbishop using the Holy Spirit as a guide. One of the elder bishops had a dream in which a radiant man came to him, telling him to elect the first man who came to the church as the archbishop.

Well! St. Nicholas was always eager to be in church. And so, when he popped into church, the first one there as usual, the elder bishop stopped him and asked his name. 

And thus, he was chosen to by the Archbishop of Myra — which, by the way, was a considerably dangerous title to hold, as this was during the Roman Christian persecution. 

First Council of Nicaea

First Council of Nicaea

Remember when I said he became an archbishop during the persecution of Christians? With the conversion of Emperor Constantine, this persecution lifted, allowing them to freely practice their faith! And, just as you might guess from the Letters of Saint Paul, it was a bit of a mess and there was a lot of organization to do. 

And so! The Emperor Constantine, depicted as sitting on the throne in this picture, ordered what would be known as the First Council of Nicaea. 

In this particular scene, St. Nicholas’s hand is raised against Arius, the promulgator of the Arian heresy that stated that Jesus Christ was not consubstantial with the Father and that the Holy Trinity was not a thing. 

Remember that second image where St. Nicholas, as a newborn, stood for three hours in the baptismal font to honor the Holy Trinity?

Yeah. That sort of heresy by Arius wasn’t going to fly with St. Nicholas around. So, first St. Nicholas argued with Arius. And, when that didn’t get anywhere, St. Nicholas lost his temper and smacked Arius. 

And by smacked, I mean it was hard enough that the other bishops first knee-jerk reaction was to defrock St. Nicholas and remove him as bishop.

However! Afterwards, several bishops had a dream in which Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary came, indicating that St. Nicholas should have his powers restored. And so they did. 

This meme comes to mind…

The Icon and the Rescue of the Ship

Which begs the question… what was the image that the Church Fathers had in their dream to make them reinstate St. Nicholas?

The answer? Take a look at this central icon! Christ is handing the Gospel to St. Nicholas while the Virgin Mary has his vestment, indicating that he be reinstated!

This icon also tell the story of another miraculous occurrence in St. Nicholas’s life. St. Nicholas saw that a storm was coming, and so he began to pray that the storm be calmed. And so the storm was calmed… but not before one man fell aboard and was mortally wounded. Yet, with the prayers of the saint, he was able to miraculously recover. 

He is also credited with saving others from drowning in his life!

The Rescue from the Sword!

Just in case you were in doubt of how remarkable and fearless St. Nicholas was… a corrupt governor was bribed to kill three innocent men. So, on the day that they were supposed to be killed, they were kneeling down, awaiting the sword, when St. Nicholas stepped up, grabbed the sword from the executioner’s hand, and threw down the sword. Then he marched up to the governor and demanded that the charges be dropped, or else he was going to tell Emperor Constantine. 

All charges were dropped!

The Imprisonment of Three Innocent Officers

As it turned out, three of the officers who watched St. Nicholas step in and save the innocents’ lives were subsequently slandered and imprisoned! That was already pretty bad… but it became worse when they found out that their political opponents had arranged for them to be killed.

Upset, they called upon St. Nicholas to somehow save them from death. 

Constantine’s Dream

What happens when you’re all out of hope and need a miracle?

You call for a saint.

Well! While St. Nicholas wasn’t dead yet, but sometimes living saints can help us too. And that is what happened!

So, remember how the three officers were imprisoned and sentenced to death? And how they prayed to St. Nicholas to help them out of their situation?

St. Nicholas spoke with the Emperor Constantine in a dream, urging him to have mercy on this man, who was unfairly accused. And the Emperor Constantine responded, freeing the man. 

Mind you, at first Emperor Constantine was a bit unsettled about the dream. He demanded to know if the accused men had committed any sorcery. But, once he listened to the men and they explained themselves and told him that they had asked for the intervention of St. Nicholas, he agreed to drop the charges and free the men.

A happy ending!

The Death of St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas eventually died peacefully, and his body was incorrupt! Later, his remains were transferred to another church, where they were still found to be incorrupt. 

And now? We can still ask him to pray for us as we go through the turmoils of our own lives!

St. Nicholas, pray for us!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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