St Nicholas and the Merchant's Daughters
Introduction -Historical Context of the Legend and Story
St. Nicholas, who morphed into Santa Claus, was a real historical figure but much of what is known about his is mainly legend.
St. Nicholas was a famous bishop in the early days of Christianity and he was known throughout the Mediterranean world both for the way he cared for and protected his flock as well as for his other good works, both as an individual Christian and as a bishop.
A Wealthy Merchant Loses his Fortune
Many centuries ago in the ancient port city of Myra in Asia Minor there lived a rich merchant named Demetri.
Demetri owned six sailing ships which he would load with merchandise and send out to trade for spices, silks, perfumes and other precious goods available from traders the Mediterranean Sea. These goods, gathered in the foreign ports, fetched good prices when sold in the market in Myra and Demetri's fortune kept growing. But Demetri's real wealth lay not in his strong box containing his gold and jewels or in the ships which were the source of his yearly profits. No, the real joy in his life was his three daughters Martha, Ruth and Angelica.
As the years passed Demetri's home was filled with joy as his daughters grew into young women and filled the home with their singing and laughter. The highlight of each day for Demetri was when he left his counting house at the docks and came home to the warm embraces of his wife and daughters. Life was good!
Tragedy Strikes Demetri and His Family
Then tragedy struck!
First, news arrived that three of his ships returning from a successful trading voyage to the western Mediterranean and loaded with with valuable cargo had encountered a terrific storm which had blown them onto the rocky coast of Sicily destroying them and their cargo. The few surviving sailors had been rescued by a passing ship a few days later and had returned, penniless, to Myra with the sad news.
Shortly after this, word arrived that another two of his ships had been attacked and captured by pirates in the Black Sea.
The final blow came one cool autumn evening as dock hands worked into the night loading Demetri's final ship with a load of wine and olive oil. Demetri had given them a small cask of wine to have with their dinner and some consumed too much. Drunk and hurrying to get the ship loaded so it could sail with the morning tide, a couple of tipsy stevedores tripped, causing the cask of oil they were carrying to fall and break. Hearing the crash another dock hand came running with a lantern to investigate. Slipping on the newly spilled oil, he lost hold of his lantern, which fell and ignited the oil on the dock. It took but a few moments before the ship, the cargo on the dock and Demetri's counting house were all engulfed in flames.
As the sun rose over the docks of Myra the next morning Demetri's ship, cargo and counting house were nothing more than smoldering ruins. He had been a wealthy man a few months earlier. Now his entire fortune was gone. But he still had his wife, his three beautiful daughters and his home. With some hard work he could rebuild his fortune.
A Good Deed Under Cover of Darkness
However, fate had a reserved its cruelest blows for last. Over the months while his business was being destroyed, his eldest daughter, Martha, was being courted and falling in love with Jonathan, the son of another wealthy merchant in Myra. It was a fine match and offered Martha the security of a home and family of her own. Jonathan had proposed to Martha and had an appointment to meet with Demetri to sign the marriage contract. But the marriage contract, like all marriage contracts of that day and age, required the bride's father to provide a dowry before the marriage could take place. In this case the dowry amounted to a large sum of gold. However, Demetri no longer had that much gold. Without a dowry there would be no marriage. Worse, girls who were unable to find a husband to care for them often ended up impoverished and sold as slaves after their father's death.
Demetri was deeply troubled and could not sleep that night. Sometime during the night as Demetri lay in his bed haunted by his fears, he heard a noise on the roof followed by the loud thump of something falling. But he was too troubled to investigate and, just before dawn, fell into a troubled sleep.
"Papa! Papa!" shouted Martha as she ran into the bedroom awakening him. "Look, it is a miracle! I have been praying and my prayers have been answered!" she said as she excitedly held a bag before his eyes. Inside the bag were the required amount of gold coins for the dowry. "I found this in the fireplace when I went to re-start the fire this morning" she said.
Demetri couldn't believe his good fortune and he and his wife quickly knelt and joined Martha in a prayer of thanksgiving to God.
Demetri's joy did not last long because, soon after Martha's marriage, Ruth announced that the young officer of the Imperial Guard, who had been courting her had proposed marriage. This joyous news brought new worry to Demetri because he still could not afford a dowry and miracles don't happen twice.
Again, Demetri lay in bed worrying about being unable to pay Ruth's dowry and having her future ruined. But, just as last time, he heard footsteps on the roof followed by a loud thump. As he ran to investigate, he bumped into Ruth running from her room. Just as before, there lay a bag of gold with the money for the dowry. "Oh, Papa" exclaimed Ruth, "I have been up praying for this miracle all night! I just knew that God would answer my prayers and now he has."
Ruth was soon happily married and, shortly afterward, Angelica announced that she had fallen in love with the son of a wealthy noble and he had asked her to marry him. "Don't worry Papa! I have been praying for a miracle like Martha's and Ruth's and I know that God won't ignore my pleas."
Demetri hoped she was right, but, remembering the noises he had heard when the miracles occurred for Martha and Ruth, suspected that God may have had an earthly helper. After his wife and daughter had retired for the night, Demetri crept up on to the roof and waited. All was silent as the moon and stars slowly made their way across the night sky.
Demetri Recognizes his Benefactor
Cold, stiff and tired, Demetri was just about to fall asleep when he heard footsteps. Looking up he saw a figure of a man running across a neighboring roof toward his roof. A quick leap brought the figure on to his roof and next to the chimney. Lifting a sack, the stranger leaned over the chimney and dropped it down the chimney.
"Ah Choo!" Demetri sneezed in the cold. Hearing this, the stranger looked in the direction of the sneeze and, by the dim light of the moon Demetri recognized the face of the young and saintly Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Demetri started to speak but Nicholas silenced him saying "Don't thank me. Thank God who left me with this fortune. I am only following Jesus' command to share with those in need." He then turned and left.
Angelica was married soon after than and, in time, with hard work, Demetri was able to acquire more ships and restore his fortune, much of which he would secretly leave in the back of the church at night for Bishop Nicholas to share with others in need.
A Note on Historical Context
While not necessarily literally true, the stories and legends that have grown up around St. Nicholas have a basis in his good character.
St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th in many parts of the world. Here is a story I created for my children using the legend of St. Nicholas and the Merchant's Daughters as the basis.
This legend takes many forms but it is basically the story of a rich merchant and loving father who falls on hard times and is worried about dying and leaving his three daughters penniless in a world dominated by men.
In those days wealthy men wouldn't marry a woman unless her family provided a dowry in form of a large amount of gold or other valuables. Even among peasants many expected a woman's family to provide them with something of value, such as a cow or sheep, to accompany the woman they married. Options for single women without money in those days were very limited and amounted mostly to choosing between begging, prostitution or being sold into slavery.
In addition to the later practice of Santa Claus secretly visiting homes while children slept on Christmas Eve, this legend of the merchant's daughters is also the basis for Santa Clause using the chimney to enter homes and the practice of hanging stockings on the fireplace for Santa to fill - in the 4th century there were no electric dryers for drying clothes and the best place to dry socks and other clothing wet from snow and rain was to hang them over the fireplace.
© 2006 Chuck Nugent