Icon in church of St Nicholas, Mramorec, Republic of Macedonia
Patron of children, sailors, unmarried women, merchants, pawnbrokers, apothecaries and perfumers.
Although he is one of the most popular saints in the East and West, very little is known about the life of this 4th century bishop. His diocese of Myra was in south east Turkey.
According to legend, he gave three bags of gold to three girls who couldn't marry, because they didn't have dowries. This is said to be the basis of the three gold balls on the pawnbroker's sign.
The number three crops up very often in St Nicholas' life. He is said to have raised three young boys to life after they had been murdered. He defended and saved three men unjustly accused of a crime, and he rescued three sailors from drowning.
From his shrine at Bari there was said to have come a wonderful scent. In England about 400 churches are dedicated to St Nicholas, and many windows and frescoes are dedicated to him. Across Europe there are hundreds more dedications.
The most popular result of the cult of St Nicholas is the institution of Santa Claus or Father Christmas. There were many stories of his kindness to children, and in the Low Countries the custom grew of giving children presents on this day. The custom is still very popular in Holland, Scandinavia and many Slavic countries.
Santa Claus reached his current status in North America where the Dutch Protestants in New Amsterdam united the legend to Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good ones.
For more information see: www.stnicholascenter.org