An entire book could be devoted just to the patrons of children. More saints have been assigned to watch over infants, little boys and girls, and adolescents than any other group, perhaps because they are the most vulnerable members of the human family.
The saint with the longest history as patron of children is St. Nicholas, whose feast is celebrated today. This fourth-century bishop of Myra is one of the most popular saints of all time. The number of churches, chapels, religious institutions and altars dedicated to him throughout the Christian world defy counting. His cult is still strong in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and in the Orthodox Church, but in the West St. Nicholas has suffered a setback.
Since the mid-19th century, particularly in the United States, St. Nicholas has been tangled up with Santa Claus; as a result, devotion to Nicholas has diminished. It’s hard to pray seriously to someone described as “a right jolly old elf.” It would take too long to explain how St. Nicholas came to be associated with Santa, but interested readers will find the story laid out in two fine books, Charles W. Jones’s Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of Legend, and Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas.
Nicholas was born to a Christian family in Patara in what is now Turkey. He became a priest and eventually was named bishop of Myra. Although his name does not appear on the oldest lists of bishops who attended the Council of Nicaea, a strong tradition among the Greeks insists he was there and even slapped Arius across the face when the heretic was bold enough to assert that God the Son is less than God the Father.
Nicholas’s patronage of children comes from an ancient legend that tells how he raised from the dead three little boys who had been murdered by an innkeeper. The most popular story about St. Nicholas, one that is still well-known, tells of his compassion for three poor young women. Their father had lost his fortune and with it all hope of providing dowries for his daughters. To save them from their poverty and the threat of having to support themselves as prostitutes, Nicholas threw bags of gold coins through an open window of the poor family’s house so that each daughter would have enough to make a good marriage.
Thomas Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)