St. Nicholas is one of those interesting early church figures for whom history can verify only the barest details, but nonetheless has numerous stories and legends surrounding him. We know that Nicholas was born in Patara, Lycia (Turkey) around A.D. 300, became bishop of Myra (Demre, in modern Turkey), and died around A.d. 350. An analysis of his bones in Bari, Italy, has revealed that he was barely five feet tall and had a broken nose. This is all that history can tell us for certain, although there are many legends and stories involving gift-giving which are attributed to this saint.
St. Nicholas is said to have been born of wealthy parents and to have traveled to the Holy Land in his youth. He was tortured and imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian, and released when Constantine ordered official toleration of Christians. Nicholas is said to have attended the famous Council of Nicea in 325 (although his name does not appear in the official lists), where he became so infuriated by the heretic Arius that he slapped him hard in the face!
Many of the legends of St. Nicholas involve him helping young people and the poor. In one tale, a butcher lured three boys to his house during a time of famine. While they slept, he killed them, cut them up and placed the pieces in a barrel of salt, intending to sell them for food. Nicholas, who was told of this horrendous act by an angel, hurried to the butcher’s house and restored the boys to life.
Another popular legend has it that three daughters of a poor merchant were about to be forced into prostitution since they had no marriage dowries, but St. Nicholas saved them from a life of sin by dropping three bags of gold into the merchant’s garden or chimney (versions vary), enabling them to get married.
The saint was buried in Myra upon his death, and a church may have been built over his tomb soon after. If so, it would have been badly damaged in the earthquake of 529 and repaired along with Myra’s other buildings later in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian. Damaged in the Arab raids of the 7th century, the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra was rebuilt in the 8th century; it is this structure that largely survives today.
After his death, Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and seafarers, and many pilgrims came to visit his tomb. Over the centuries, the legends and great popularity of St. Nicholas of Myra led to the Christmastime figure of the bearded man who secretly brings toys to children. He is still known as St. Nick in most of Europe (and he brings his gifts on December 6, not Christmas), but in America he came to be known as Santa Claus.
— “Church of St. Nicholas, Myra (Kale/Demre).” Sacred Destinations. [Emphasis in original]
A selection of Flickr images of the church of St. Nicholas in Myra (Kale/Demre), as well as the spectacular rock crypts there.