The Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers
There are few other characters who have embraced our hearts and collective spirit, as has "Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.
In Turkey, Myra (now Demre) is where Saint Nicholas gained his world-renowned fame. Born around the year 280 in Patara, fifty miles west of Myra (Demre), into a well to do Christian family, young Nicholas was ordained into the priesthood when he was nineteen years old. When his Uncle and namesake, the Bishop Nicholas, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Nicholas was appointed as deputy to oversee the monastery, which the elder Nicholas had built. Thus began the 'life of enlightenment' of the 'boy bishop' Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas and the Pawnbroker. Through his great acts of kindness and generosity, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of many: of seafaring men, of marriageable young women, of the falsely accused, of endangered travelers, of farmers, of children, of merchants, and of pawnbrokers. It is told that Pawnbrokers and bankers in northern Italy, who looked to Saint Nicholas as their patron saint, hung three golden balls above the doors of their shops in tribute to, and for good luck from, their Saint Nicholas.
Another legend tells of the pawnbroker who made a loan to a friend with no collateral to secure the debt. The friend swore on the icon of Saint Nicholas that he would repay the loan on a fixed date. When that date comes around, and the debt is due to the pawnbroker, his friend refuses to pay the debt, insisting that he owes the pawnbroker nothing. To settle the matter, the borrower and the pawnbroker take their case to court for the judge to decide. The debtor declares under oath that he has given the borrowed money back to the pawnbroker. Technically, the debtor spoke the truth, for unknown to all in the court, he had secretly deposited the exact sum of money owed into a hollow shaft of his walking cane, which he had tricked the pawnbroker into holding while he declared his oath of repayment. With no evidence of guilt, the judge of the court decides in favor of the debtor. This dismayed the pawnbroker who felt betrayed by his patron Saint Nicholas. Leaving the court, the crooked borrower was making his way home, and after becoming fatigued, was forced by exhaustion to lie down on the side of the road to rest, where he fell into a deep, trance-like sleep, from which he could not be awakened. A Passerby watched in horror as the crooked borrower was run over by a runaway horse and wagon, and he suffered a painful death. The passerby then noticed lying on the road, the valuable contents of the debtor's walking cane that had been broken open by the wheel of the wagon. The passerby called the pawnbroker and the judge to the scene of the accident. The pawnbroker counts the spillage of coins to find that they total the exact amount borrowed from him, but he refuses to take the money while his one-time friend lies lifeless.
The pawnbroker prays that if the power of Saint Nicholas is great enough to take the life of the crooked debtor to expose his fraudulent claim, surely the good and merciful Saint could bring his friend back to life. Heartened by the good will and generosity of the pawnbroker, Saint Nicholas obeys the prayer, and miraculously, the debtor opens his eyes, stands, and walks to the pawnbroker. He repays all the money he owed. The story of the debtor and the pawnbroker helped establish the role of Saint Nicholas as the protector of financial integrity and guardian of commitments made in good faith.
Deed of Generosity. Even before the young Nicholas had become a priest, repeated deeds of generosity symbolically characterized the beloved Saint. Though the generous Saint of Myra may be historically known as Saint Nicholas, his spirit has bred many other names. In other countries, he is known as Sankt Nicholas, Sint Nicholas, Santa Klass, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Befana, and Krist Kindlein. Of course, we know him as jolly old Santa Claus. But whatever the name, the emotion evoked by his image remain the same. The universal values of good will and generosity transcend time and tradition, and the need to love and to be loved are characteristic traits of Saint Nicholas to which all aspire.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas or Father January occurred first in Germany, then in countries where the Reformed Churches were the majority, and finally in France, the feast day being celebrated on Christmas or New Year's Day. Dutch Protestant settlers in New Amsterdam (New York City) replaced Saint Nicholas (Sinter Claes) with the benevolent magician who became known as Santa Claus, thus contributing further to his spreading folklore.