Being a sea farers’ country, St. Nicholas, the protector of the sailors, is very popular in Greece. His churches overlook harbours everywhere and Skiathos is no exception. On Skiathos there are three churches in his honour; one towering over the town on the Kotronia hill (where the post box stood in Mamma Mia), a smaller one just below and one in Kastro.
But who exactly was St. Nicholas? In icons we see him as a white haired, slightly balding, elderly bishop giving benediction with one hand. The other hand holds the Bible and out of reverence for the Holy Scripture, the hand is covered with his robe. As is usually the case in icons, his face is severe, again a sign of reverence, and around him we often see images of the sea: sailors in need, ships, dolphins etc.
Born to a wealthy, Christian family in the Greek Lycia (today’s Turkey) in 280, St. Nicholas showed very early signs of being a holy man: only three days old he stood up in his bath and refused his mothers breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, as these are days of fasting. As a toddler, he never wanted to play children’s games that had to do with bluffing or make believe. When both his parents suddenly died of the plague, young Nicholas gave away most of the family wealth to the poor and soon became a priest.
Travelling by sea, St. Nicholas once made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One night, he dreamt that he saw Satan destroying the sails and when he woke up he warned the crew and the captain that they were in danger. Sure enough, a fierce storm soon came over them but through his prayers, St. Nicholas managed to save them all. It is from this story that people all over the world have made him the patron saint of the sea, and it is not unusual that Greeks light a candle or leave a gift (tama) to St. Nicholas before a sea journey.
St. Nicholas became Archbishop of Myra, not far from his home town, and eventually served under Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to make Christianity a state religion and founder of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). He was very much a loved priest, and said to have been very gentle and understanding. The list of acts of compassion and miracles during his lifetime are endless: saving himself and his fellow prisoners when arrested and tortured during the emperor Diocletian’s rule, resurrecting three babies that had been murdered, exorcising a demon from a young man etc. St. Nicholas donations were always anonymous and it was this secret gift giving that eventually turned him into Santa, albeit not in Greece (here, St. Basil is Father Christmas). One story tells us that St. Nicholas once provided three maidens with enough dowries to marry, thus saving them from slavery. He threw bags of gold through their window and the money landed in their socks, which later turned into the custom of hanging out socks for Christmas.
When St. Nicholas died at the age of about 60, he was deeply mourned and his funeral procession was attended by people from all layers of society. Thousands flocked to his grave, as his relics were believed to work miracles and in 1087, his remains were taken to Italy in an act of “saving them from barbarians”, a subject of harsh discussions between Italians and Greeks to this day.
St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th and anyone called Nikolaos, Nikos, Nicoletta etc. have their name days. The actual name in Greek is Νικόλαος, NikOlaos and it means “victor of people”. Apart from sailors, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of students, merchants, pawnbrokers, children and the Greek navy. In December, the Greeks put lighted models of boats in the streets and their homes in his honor and even though he is not the Christmas saint, St. Basil’s boats are the traditional Christmas decoration, rather than the Christmas tree.
If you know someone named after St. Nicholas, do not forget to wish them chronia polla (many years) on December 6th. Name days are more important than birthdays in Greece and a message or phone call will always be much appreciated.
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