Saint Nicholas’ Life and Journeys
We can follow the life of Saint Nicholas of Holy Sion from an anonymous work, the ‘Vita Nicolae Sionitae’ (referred to as the Vita), probably written by a close follower during the second half of the 6thC (while describing the sea voyages, the author uses ‘we’, as though he was present). In late Byzantine times, passages from the Vita, especially the miracles, were re-used to help create a legend of the life of Saint Nicholas of Myra, thus advancing the Santa Claus story.
Today one complete and several partial copies of the Vita in the original Greek made in the 11thC still exist. Gustav Anrich edited the complete text in 1913; Ihor Sevcenko and Nancy Patterson Sevenco translated it in 1984, referring to a second copy for doubtful passages. In 1985, M. Chronz wrote a dissertation on it and in 1997 Harmut Blum translated it into German and added a commentary.
The Vita covers several topics: a narrative of Nicholas’ family background, travels, life and death; the establishment of the Monastery of Holy Sion (there is no reference to the founding of other churches but the text is often ambiguous); and his miracles. It is confused by the number of people named Nicholas – for our Nicholas’ uncle and patron, the ‘forefather’ saint (later Santa Claus), a minor cleric and the Archbishop of Myra all bear the same name.
The Vita records that Nicholas was born in the hamlet of Pharroa in the district of the village of Tragalassos, probably at the end of the 5thC or beginning of the 6thC. Nicholas’ uncle, also Nicholas and from the same village, lived with his spiritual father Sabbatios, who was archimandrite at the Saint John Monastery in Akalissos. Before he died, Sabbatios had a revelation of a church on a mountain made entirely from stone and lit by a burning light.
Subsequently Uncle Nicholas, now archimandrite, followed the Archangel Michael to a mountain near Pharroa where he saw a vision of a brightly-illuminated church which was to be founded on this spot. The angel also told Uncle Nicholas that his nephew was chosen to dwell in the church. The Archbishop Nicholas of Myra consecrated the site, traced the outlines of the apses and gave the name Holy Sion to the new church, implying that it was to be a copy of the Holy Sion church in Jerusalem.
Nicholas was born to parents called Epiphanios and Nonna and had two brothers called Artemas and Hermaios. His parents presented him to his uncle at Akalissos, who called the child a ‘servant of God’ and marked him out for a religious life. While the child Nicholas was being educated, he healed an old woman called Nonine, who had withered foot, by making the sign of the cross over her. Part of his education was supervised by Konon, a priest who also supervised the ongoing construction of the Holy Sion church. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra, consecrated young Nicholas as reader then, when the Sion church was complete, at the age of 19 he was ordained priest.
Nicholas’ uncle put him in charge of the new church; we are told ‘there being no clerics, God made him the gift of faith to strive for Him.’ Nicholas appointed his brother Artemas as presbyter. Later, his uncle died and was buried at Saint John’s Monastery in Akalissos.
The Vita describes two voyages to the Holy Land, but the sequence is unclear and the first voyage, described quite briefly, may possibly have been made by the uncle. At the church of Saint Nicholas (later Santa Claus) at Myra, Nicholas met a captain from Ascalon; they boarded a ship at Andriake and sailed for five days to Ascalon, on the east coast of the Mediterranean. Nicholas and his companions went up to Jerusalem, worshipped the venerable cross and church of the Resurrection and visited the holy places as far as the Jordan. They returned to Lycia and the village of Tragalassos.
The second voyage is described in far more detail, as several miracles occurred during the journey. Nicholas and his companions found an Egyptian ship at the harbour of Tristomon / Üçağız, to the west of Myra, and sailed to Egypt. During the voyage, Nicholas predicted a storm, prayed for the safety of the ship and resurrected a sailor who had been struck by a falling spar. Nicholas spent four days at the shrine of Saint Theodore in the village of Diolko where he cured a blind man and another man suffering from tremors. He took ship to Ascalon and went to Jerusalem where he worshipped at the church of the Resurrection and at Golgotha. He stayed eight days and visited all the holy places and fathers of the church as far as the Jordan river. There is no mention of the church of Holy Sion.
Nicholas was advised by an angel to hurry to back to Lycia, so boarded a Rhodian ship at Ascalon; ten days later the ship reached Cape Chelidonia. Nicholas wanted to disembark at Phoinix / Finike but the captain wanted to take advantage of the wind and sail directly Rhodes, avoiding the alternative ports of Andriake and Tristomon / Üçağız. Nicholas, therefore, prayed to God, the wind direction changed and the captain, fearing for his ship, landed him at Andriake, from where Nicholas went up to the monastery.
The Vita describes various disputes between Nicholas and his brother, ascribing them to a meddlesome demon. It also relates dreams which frightened Nicholas; in one, he saw the church altar tilted, the conch of the church open to the sky and water dripping into the nave. In another, the Archangel Michael revealed the coming of the plague and told Nicholas that he should offer the souls of the sick to God. These visions seem to describe the earthquake of 530 and the plague, which in 542 spread from Egypt.
As plague ravaged Myra, the farmers were afraid to bring agricultural produce to market, so city people starved. A rumour blamed this on Nicholas so the archbishop and governor sent two clerics to bring him to Myra in chains. The inhabitants of Tragalassos heard of this and gathered at the monastery to rescue Nicholas from arrest.
Maybe to thank the villagers, maybe to celebrate the end of the plague, Nicholas went to Tragalassos and sacrificed a pair of oxen for a feast. From there he journeyed to Akalissos to visit the monastery of Saint John and the graves of the late archimandrites Sabbatios, Nicholas (his uncle) and Leo and then to all the holy churches nearby, offering 16 oxen in sacrifice. He also visited the church of Saint George in Plenion.
Two years later, Nicholas made a second journey lasting 25 days; he visited and sacrificed oxen at 10 churches, listed as follows: Saint Gabriel at Karkabo; Saint Theodore at Kausai; the Holy Archangel at Nea Kome; Saint Apphianos in Partaessos; the Archangel and Saint Demetrios in Symbolon; the Virgin in Nautes; Saint Irene in Serine; the Archangel at Trebendai; Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) at Kastellon; Melissa at Hemalissoi and from there back to Holy Sion.
Once, while Nicholas was on his way from the monastery to Myra, he turned off to Kastellon, where he saw that the church of Saint Daniel in Sabandos was about to collapse. Nicholas immediately summoned a cleric from the hamlet of Damasei and a master builder; he paid 80½ nomismata for repairs to the church.
Later, the Archbishop of Myra appointed Nicholas Bishop of the western Lycian city of Pinara. The Virgin appeared to Nicholas, asking him to build her a church, but the local magistrates opposed him. Eventually, after litigation and purchasing the land, Nicholas, at a cost of 400 nomismata, completed the Theotokos church and was able to return to his monastery.
After a visit to Myra, to take part in a Synod celebrating Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), Nicholas was taken ill and died at the monastery on Wednesday, 10th December 564, in the 38th reign year of the Emperor Justinian. Philip, Bishop of Phellos, presided over the funeral and the Saint was buried in the right part of the right section for the women at his church of Holy Sion.
Saint Nicholas’ Miracles
Like all saints, Nicholas was credited with performing miracles during his lifetime. His fame spread and there seems to have been a stream of visitors to the monastery requesting his intercession; even in childhood and on his deathbed he performed miracles. Many of the miracles are concerned with curing the sick or those possessed by unclean spirits. In others, he enables infertile couples to have children. At feasts, he causes food and drink to be multiplied so it never ran out. These miracles have obvious references to the acts of Jesus or the Apostles. The most interesting miracles are those which concern the countryside around the monastery.
Four are described below:
One day, some men from the village of Plakoma came to Sion Monastery and requested help from Nicholas to get rid of a spirit of an unclean idol which inhabited a sacred tree on their land and was destroying the inhabitants and their fields. A man who had previously tried to fell the tree had died in the attempt. Three hundred people had gathered to watch; none of them dared to help cut down the tree. Nicholas took a blade, made the sign of the cross and struck the tree seven blows. The tree swayed, frightening the crowd, then fell – the unclean spirit disappeared. Nicholas sent to Myra for workmen to cut it up, but reports of its size deterred them. Eventually five men from Karkabo cut up the timber, which was then dragged to the monastery.
The inhabitants of Arnabanda sent their clerics to Sion to request Nicholas for help with their spring water, which had turned muddy and undrinkable. After a service in the local church, Nicholas sought a source of water rumoured to be present on Mount Kaisar. Nicholas located a spot, prayed and the villagers dug – sure enough, a hidden spring burst forth.
A couple from Arneai asked Nicholas to help him make their land more fertile for, in spite of many years of labour, the fields returned no more than the seed-corn. After Nicholas’ intercession, the following year the crop was five times as large.
When the hill ‘in front of the apse’ was being quarried, Nicholas dismissed the workmen and set off for the Holy Land. His brother Artemas, wishing to continue the work, summoned workmen to Arneai and then to the mountain, where they began to cut stone. They wished to turn over a huge stone block, but even though 75 men from the village were brought to help, it would not move. On his return, Nicholas and his twelve companions moved the stone unaided.
One of the values of these tales is that they list the names of places around the monastery and give clues which enable them to be matched with surviving churches and villages. They also show the problems which the farmers experienced – lack of plentiful clean water, the infertility of the stony soil and the hard labour involved in constructing the churches. But the farmers and labourers in the countryside were able to produce enough food to support the city at Myra and local clerics, woodsmen and master builders.