Thursday, December 27, 2012

History: The Sailors' Saint

When modern Americans hear the name St. Nicholas, they think of that right jolly ol' elf who brings presents to good girls and boys on Christmas Eve. But this very versatile saint has many other duties to attend to; some of which involve the safety of sailors.

St. Nicholas, who was born at Lycia some time in the fourth century CE, is better known as "of Myra" in honor of the city over which he presided as a Catholic bishop. The saint is sometimes also know by the moniker "of Bari" although why I cannot determine. He is the patron saint of a vast and seemingly disjointed array of items and people. According to Butler's Lives of Patron Saints, the Bishop is responsible for children of both sexes, brides, unmarried women, pawnbrokers, perfumers and perfumiers, travelers, pilgrims, safe journeys, sailors and maritime pilots. He is also the protector of Russia and the cities of Amsterdam, New York, Baranquilla, Bari, Myra and Liverpool. His feast day is December 6th, coincidentally the day after Krampus, the celebration of St. Nicholas' unsavory helper who goes by the same name.

The most famous story of the saint - and the one that awarded him the red and white suit of Santa Claus - has to do with Bishop Nicholas rescuing the three Christian daughters of a poor pagan who, unable to provide them with the dowries required for proper marriages, was going to sell them to a brothel owner. The future saint, hearing of the girls' distress, managed to raise three bags of gold, one for each girl's dowry. As he amassed these small fortunes, St. Nicholas threw the individual bags into the poor man's cottage under cover of darkness. Thus the bishop remained anonymous and, through this generosity, became not only a patron of children and brides, but an overarching giver of gifts, particularly at Christmas.

The connection of the saint to sailors is probably just as much legend. St. Nicholas was said to have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Egypt, both of which would have required travel via ship. The most compelling story of the saint and sailors, however, has the Bishop appearing to a vessel about to be beaten open on the rocks off Lycia. Through his intervention, the ship was brought safely into the port. A shrine was built to the saint there and, from that time forward, sailors stopped in to prayed to St. Nicholas for safe passage. Those who survived rough seas were also known to bring a piece of canvas from their rescued ship to the shrine as an offering of thanks.

Finally, if you're interested in the subject, you can find a lengthy and fascinating discussion of St. Nicholas and his importance to sailors over at the always informative gCaptain.

Be sure to stop by again tomorrow when the lucky winner of Triple P's very first giveaway will be announced. Until then, I hope the Holidays continue happy for all!

Header: Saint Nicholas and the Sailors from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc of Berry via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Wow, those are certainly some diverse peoples and places to be responsible for, Pauline.

Pauline said...

It does seem like some of those have zero in the way of explanation; unmarried women and pawnbrokers, for instance. But hey, it's Catholic mythology; I learned in my youth that you just gotta roll with it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pauline,

"St. Nicholas of Bari" because he is said to be buried there.

Pauline said...

Excellent; thank you anon for the added info. I could only find documentation of his tomb being at Myra.