St. Nicholas of Myra is one of the greatest and holiest bishops of the early Church. He is also one of the most popular saints of all time!
St. Nicholas was born ~280 AD in Lycia, Asia Minor (now modern day Turkey) to noble Christian parents. Even from a very young age it was clear that God had granted him very special and unique graces. For example, he preferred to assist at prayers and Mass in the church than play with other children. One often found him singing holy hymns, the psalms, and he learned much of Sacred Scripture by heart. It is said that as an infant he even fasted on Fridays, refusing his mother’s milk. Nicholas was also a very sensitive child and had a great compassion for the suffering, the sick, and those burned by injustices. He promised to help them in any way he could. Deep suffering was also part of his life. He was only a young man when a plague claimed both his parents. He inherited their wealth and vowed to distribute it in order to help the needy, to save souls, and glorify God.
One well known story is how a family in Lycia had three daughters. They had fallen on hard times and the father believed his only option would be to "sell" his three daughters to prospective "husbands." Yet young Nicholas learned of his situation and during the dead of night, silently tossed a sack of gold coins through an open window into the man's home. The father awoke to great amazement, wept with joy, and praised God. Now his oldest daughter would not have to be sold but had a proper dowry. The next night Nicholas again tossed another bag of coins into the window, and again a third night. The last bag landed in the youngest girls stocking. This time the father had laid awake and 'caught' Nicholas in the act of charity. He thanked Nicholas profusely, kissed his feet and asked how he could possibly thank and repay Nicholas. The saint merely asked him to keep his identity a secret and never reveal the events until after his death. (This is the origin of the custom of leaving a stocking – or shoe - out on the eve of December 5th, that St. Nicholas may fill it with good gifts on the morn of his feast.)
Young Nicholas continued to help the poor and then decided to broaden his knowledge by traveling the world. He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visited the holy places, all the while continuing to pray and learn as much as he could about Our Lord and His Disciples. He even traveled as far as the great Egyptian city of Alexandria, which was the greatest center of learning in the ancient world.
In the coastal city of Myra (in Asian Minor), the local priests had gathered to choose a new bishop. One of them received an inner vision that the first person to walk through the church doors should be the bishop. To assure the priest of the truth of the message, the heavenly voice informed him the name of the man would be Nicholas. Our saint was returning home from his travels and stopped in Myra to visit the cathedral and thank God for his travels. The elderly priest saw him and asked him his name. Upon hearing his reply, all the priests rejoiced, thanked God, and made him their new bishop. Nicholas brought to his holy office a deep piety, humility and great enthusiasm. To this day he remains the youngest man ever ordained a bishop.
During the reign of Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas and his people suffered greatly. At the turn of the 4th century, Diocletian initiated the Great Persecution with the intent to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth. It was the longest, most widespread and bloodiest persecution ever launched by the Roman Empire against Christians. Although many died and many apostasized, the Church emerged from this holocaust stronger, more numerous and more glorious. Our holy bishop was tortured and beaten severely, yet steadfastly persevered in the faith and made a admirable confession in Jesus Christ, the Triune God, and the holy Catholic Church. For this reason he was given the name "The Confessor." (He did not suffer martyrdom, but was beaten to an inch of his life, and many considered him a living martyr. This is what that title Confessor also referred to).
St. Nicholas was one of the bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicea. Upon hearing the awful heresies of Arius (who denied Christ's divinity) he stood in a holy rage and struck Arius in the face (reminiscent of our Lord over turning the tables and whipping the money changers). For his righteous action which "upset" the proper proceedings of the Council, Emperor Constantine had Nicholas removed from the Council and imprisoned! Yet that same night Our Lady appeared to him and returned him his bishop's miter and thanked him for having defended her Son and Our Lord. The following day, the Emperor brought Nicholas forward to be tormented, but an image of Christ and His Blessed Mother appeared over St. Nicholas. This so impressed and struck fear into the Emperor that he released Nicholas and threw his full imperial support behind the Catholics and against the Arians. St. Nicholas and others then persuaded Emperor Constantine himself to suggest the term “homoousious” be inserted into the Creed to describe the divine relationship between the Father and Son. It was at this same council that St. Athanasius, as a young deacon, with the support of these great confessor bishops helped formulate the Nicene Creed, which we continue to pray at Mass to this very day.
St. Nicholas worked many other miracles. People from Scythia, India, Africa, and Italy and the farthest corners of the world traveled to Asia Minor to see, touch and hear the Great Confessor, Bishop Nicholas of Myra. Just a few of his many miracles include: One night, there was a violent storm off the coast of Lycia. Sailors caught in the storm prayed to Nicholas. He appeared above them in the sky and commanded the waves to be calmed. That morning the sailors arrived at port, entered a Church to thank God for saving their lives, and lo and behold saw Nicholas preaching there. They instantly recognized him and fell down in prayer. Thus, Nicholas became the patron saint of seafarers and those who work on the sea.  There was time that Myra suffered great famine. An evil innkeeper captured three young boys and killed them. He cooked them in a tub of brine intending to serve them as food. When the Bishop heard of the great injustice he had the innkeeper imprisoned. Standing over the cauldron he prayed to God and the bodies of the boys were restored and they came back to life. Since then, St. Nicholas also became the patron saint of children.  He appeared to Emperor Constantine in a dream and informed him that three men imprisoned were actually innocent. The dream was so vivid that the following morning the Emperor released the men. St. Nicholas also became the patron of captives, wrongfully accused.  There was young boy named Dimitri who was swimming and drowned in the river Dnieper (in modern day Russia). His family pronounced him dead and prepared to mourn his loss. But Dimitri was found alive and well far south, praying in Nicholas' cathedral in Myra. In the minds of the faithful, there was no doubt that Nicholas had saved him.
In December of 342, Nicholas felt his spirit being strongly drawn towards heaven. He prayed to God to take him home. Suddenly, angels appeared to him and he cried out: "Into thy hand, O Lord, I commend my spirit." He then died and the angels accompanied his soul directly to heaven. His body was buried in a great shrine in Myra, where men saw his bones exude a fragrant healing oil to which many miracles were attributed. No less than twenty miracles performed by St. Nicholas were attested to by living witnesses, and countless more following his death. A great cathedral was built in his honor in Constantinople.
However during the Crusades and invasions by the Mohammedans, his relics were transferred for safe keeping to Bari, Italy (on the Adriatic Coast). A church was built there in Bari and the devotion to this great saint spread all over Western Christendom. Thus he became one of the most beloved saints both in the East and West. During the Middle Ages, his feast was celebrated with great merriment and gift giving. (Today many Catholics refer to him as the ‘real’ Santa Claus, since his life and devotions to him are the original source for much of what has been secularized into the Santa mythology. In fact, in the Germanic tongue his name i