In Spain, women seeking intercession from Saint Nicholas (270-343) traditionally walk from their homes to the nearest church dedicated to him to pray on three consecutive Mondays. If that distance is too great or their health too frail, any church with a statue of him can be substituted. In Italy, young women yearning to find appropriate mates leave three coins for Saint Nicholas in the donation box.
Their devotion stems back to an early generous action by the young man who would become a bishop and saint. Nicholas was born into an affluent family in Turkey in the second half of the second century, but his parents died of the plague. Their death left him alone, but wealthy.
As the story goes, a man living nearby had three daughters of marriageable age (an age now categorized as well underage) for whom he had not been able to find suitable suitors willing to pay the dowries he desired. Upon hearing the man planned to obtain funds by launching his daughters into careers of prostitution, Nicholas anonymously left a cloth bundle of gold on three consecutive nights at the man’s house – sparing the young women (children, if you prefer) from subjection to their father’s plans for their future.
He is valued as the patron saint of many causes, children being the major one. Possibly his role as protector of children stems from the above story and also a gruesome tale of a child he saved from a crazed butcher. It’s not hard to imagine how the bearded image and his sly deposit of sacks bearing gifts evolved into American traditions relating to, as we affectionately call him, Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of brewers, perhaps because he took grain from the rich to give to the poor. Maybe grain needed to make beer? Sailors prayed to entrust him to guide their ships through storms, after Nicholas was said to have brought a sailor back to life after the man fell from the mast of his ship in rough seas.
The purported powers of Saint Nicholas’ remains are so potent, daring military maneuvers have been made to obtain them. After the Turks took over Myra, sailors from Bari, Italy, staged a raid to seize his relics in 1087. Venetians later did the same to capture the few shards they had left behind. In Bari, the bones are said to exude myrrh, which smells like rosewater and has miraculous capabilities. The precious myrrh is collected in a flask annually on his day, December 8, and small vials are available for purchase.
Residents of Valencia are fortunate to have a major church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and tourists are not allowed to interrupt the Monday visitations by the faithful praying for his assistance. The church was founded in the 13th century, but the interior was heavily baroqued up at the end of the 15th.
The church also houses an important statue of Saint Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of lost causes, who attracts crowds seeking his intercession as well. Many of the Monday women are known to pause to pray to both, as some of their problems involve men who might be regarded as lost causes.