According to tradition, in the early fourth century Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra (what is now the southern coast of Turkey) secretly provided a dowry to three poor girls who had been destined by their own father to a life of prostitution. Thanks to the tenth century biographer Metaphrastes, this unique deed became known to all of Europe, being further embellished by local folklore, until the name St. Nicholas became corrupted into the figure we now recognize as Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas ‘The Wonderworker’ was born around 270 A.D., the only son of a rich family. Attracted to the religious life, he spurned his inherited wealth and used it for charitable work from an early age. He was elected Archbishop of Myra during the time of the Emperor Constantine the Great, and strongly defended the Faith at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325. He assisted the poor, protected the innocent, comforted the sick and suffering, and performed many miracles, which made people consider him a saint even before his death (On December 6 in either 346 or 347 A.D.)
Long after his death, the relics of St. Nicholas secreted an oily substance called myron (ointment), which was collected and used for anointing of the sick. Because he continued to work miracles even after his death, many pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land stopped at Myra to venerate his relics. Thus, Nicholas became the patron of travelers.
After Seljuk Turks occupied the Myran province of Lycia in the late 11th century, merchants from Bari, Italy, ‘stole’ the relics of St. Nicholas and moved them to their own magnificent basilica, where they were translated by Pope Urban II on May 9, 1087. There, they are still publicly venerated, and the miracle of the myron continues to this day.
The solemn translation of the relics of St. Nicholas had such a profound effect on Eastern European Christians that Nicholas is revered as the heavenly Patron Saint of the Ruthenian (Byzantine) Catholic Church. The Ruthenians, who were always poor and oppressed, admired St. Nicholas especially for his works of charity, and the popular devotion to him became and remains an integral part of Byzantine spiritual heritage.