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St. Nicholas: A true humanitarian

Shopping mall Santas might be good sports, but the real hero was St. Nicholas, a true humanitarian.

The legends about St. Nicholas are abundant, but the facts are few. Historians agreed that he was born around the year 280 in what is now Turkey. During his youth, Nicholas’ homeland was under the control of an anti-Christian Roman emperor, making it a dangerous time for a Christian such as Nicholas.

Life for Christians got a lot easier in 312, when the new emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity and called off the persecution. The next year, Nicholas became a bishop. He was revered as a kindly fellow who helped the poor and sick. He died on Dec. 6, sometime between 343 and 353, and was buried in the town of Myra, which is now a city in modern Turkey called Demre.

Stories about the miracles performed by the beloved local bishop were told and retold, and by the 6th century, a huge church was built in his honor in Myra. Countless pilgrims traveled to the historical basilica, which contained the saint’s bones, to pray for his protection and blessing.

An influential biography of St. Nicholas appeared in the 9th century, enhancing the saint’s reputation. Many of the stories describe miracles such as calming the sea with his prayers, arranging for the magical replenishment of wheat during a famine, and even raising people from the dead.

But the story most repeated about St. Nicholas had nothing to do with the supernatural. Instead, it highlights the man’s generosity. According to medieval biographers, Nicholas’ parents died and left him an inheritance when he was young. The teenage Nicholas heard about an impoverished neighbor who had three daughters and no money to feed them — much less provide dowries for them. No one would marry any of the girls without a dowry.

After Nicholas learned of the plight of this family, he anonymously left three small bags of gold coins at their house. This tale, coupled with Nicholas’ celebrated kindness to children, appears to be the inspiration for the tradition of giving small gifts on this feast day of Dec. 6.

For hundreds of years, the church at Myra attracted pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean. Then, in 1087, some Italians stole the saint’s relics and spirited them away to the town of Bari, near the heel of boot-shaped Italy. It was all the rage in the Middle Ages to steal bits of saints from one church and display them in your local church, thereby diverting all the pilgrims — and their spending money — to your hometown.

By 1089, a new church was built, and Pope Urban II came to Bari to lay the bones in the crypt of the church. As plays and paintings depicted episodes in the life of this generous saint who protected children, the cult of Nicholas kept growing. The church at Bari became a great pilgrimage site.

Before long, Nicholas was the patron saint of — take a deep breath — sailors, children, unmarried girls, barrel makers, orphans, prisoners, lawyers, newlyweds, Greeks, Russians, and just about everybody else. He is even the patron saint of pawnbrokers, who still indicate their trade by displaying three golden balls, a reference to the three bags of gold St. Nicholas gave to those unmarried girls 1,700 years ago.

St. Nicholas’ popularity waned only when the practice of praying to saints was condemned during the Reformation, starting in the 1500s. Of all the Protestant countries in Europe, only Holland continued to revere St. Nicholas, whose name they pronounced as “Sinterklaas.” In 1626, a group of Dutch settlers traveled to America in a ship adorned with a figurehead of St. Nicholas. It wasn’t long before the legend of “Santa Claus” took root in the New World.

The recreation center will close at 3 p.m. on Dec. 24 and will be closed all day Dec. 25. Pagosa Lakes administration offices will close all day Dec. 25. We wish everyone a happy and safe holiday season.