St Nicholas, bishop of Myra (in the south-west of modern Turkey) during the 4th century, became one of the most venerated saints, the patron of countries (notably Russia and Greece), towns, children, sailors, unmarried girls and scentmakers. In England alone some 400 churches are named after him.
The mystery of Nicholas’s popularity is that almost nothing is known about him. In one tradition he was persecuted under Diocletian.
In another he struck the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea (325). Certainly, though, his cult was well established in the East by the 6th century, and in the West by the 10th century. A Greek historian even wrote of his reputation among Indians and Africans.
In 1087, after Myra had fallen to Islam, Italian merchants took Nicholas’s relics to Bari, where Pope Urban II built a magnificent shrine.
Nicholas is said to have given three bags of gold to three girls in order to save them from prostitution. Conceivably the pawnbrokers’ sign of three golden balls stems from this story.
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