Today is St. Nicholas Day, a day that is widely celebrated in Germany (and in the Netherlands, too). St. Nicholas is the patron saint of the Dutch people – but he is also the patron saint of all children and of seafarers. A common custom is for children (and sometimes grown-ups, too!) to leave a freshly polished boot in front of the door the night before St. Nicholas Day, in hope that the saint will leave some goodies in it.
Nicholas actually existed. He was the bishop of Myra, a town on the shores of the Aegean Sea in what now is Turkey, and died in the 4th century A.D. He was known as a defendant of the orthodox faith.
But then there are also several legends connected with this man. Today I would like to focus on one legend that explains why he is the patron saint of sailors and children alike. According to this legend, there was a famine in Myra. Drought had caused the crops to die before they could be harvested. The people of Myra suffered from starvation. The death toll was especially high among the most vulnerable – the children.
Nicholas was heartbroken and prayed fervently for help. One day, a large cargo ship carrying grain, en route to a different destination, stopped in Myra, to take one provisions. Nicholas, who had hurried to the harbor as soon as he saw the ship approach, had to inform the captain that the town had nothing to offer.
‘But say’, he inquired, ‘what’s your cargo?’
‘We carry the finest grain,’ replied the captain.
‘Pray, good man, would you be willing to help and sell some of the grain to us? As you can see, the people are starving,’ pleaded Nicholas.
The captain looked distraught.
‘Oh, how I would like to help you, but I have to deliver this grain to a different port. I would get in trouble if I arrived with less than is expected.’
St. Nicholas wasn’t easily defeated. He took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and said, ‘I am convinced that God has sent you this way to come to our aid. Give us some of the grain, and I promise you, the ship will lie as heavily in the water as it is now. For with God, all things are possible.’
The captain had his doubts, but he was moved with pity looking at the children of Myra. So he agreed to sell the town some of the grain.
Lo and behold, the miracle happened: despite the fact that the load had been lightened, the ship was just as heavy in the water as it had been before. The captain was amazed at this, and some versions of this story say that he asked to be baptized and became a follower of Christ.
Because of the grain, the famine in Myra came to an end, and Nicholas is remembered as a man of compassion and as a miracle worker, friend of children and protector of seafarers.
This may be my favorite legend of St. Nicholas. I feel challenged by it, since my ‘ship’ is quite full with goods. I lack nothing material, on the contrary, I have more then enough. Would it really hurt me if I unloaded some of it? Would I notice? Or would my ship seem just as heavy in the water as it was before?
For me, St. Nicholas Day is not only a day to look into my boot and rejoice about the gifts St. Nicholas left (although I really like that part, too). St. Nicholas Day is also about looking into my heart and about contemplating how I can share of the abundance I have received.
I wish all of you a happy and blessed St. Nicholas Day.
This post is also available in: German