In these early days of Advent, we celebrate one of the most popular of saints, of whom we actually don’t know all that much. John Tuttle has his take today on what Saint Nicholas’ patronage of prostitutes might signify. That he was born in Myra – now in Turkey – where he was bishop most of his life seems certain; he is also called ‘of Bari’, a coastal city in southeastern Italy, just above the heel of the country’s boot, where his relics were taken in 1087 – a decade before the first Crusade – to save them from the marauding, iconoclastic and relico-phobic Turkish Muslims.
We may safely surmise that he was a holy and steadfast bishop, a reportedly staunch foe of Arianism, whose legendary charitable works – whatever their historical origins – signify a man of great soul, who has gone down in history, much more than the mythical red-nosed reindeer who guided his sled across the North Pole into the various antipodes.
The gift-giving has its origins in the story of Nicholas saving three young women, whose father had squandered their savings, leaving them in the sad fate, in that rather brutal age, of being sold into prostitution. The good bishop, in the dark of night, dropped three successive bags of gold through an open window – safer than a chimney – enough for each of their dowries. Hence, his historical morphing into chubby and cherubic gift giving Santa Claus.