Over the centuries Eastern Christians have turned certain saint’s days into occasions for winter festivities. In the Middle East children keep St Barbara’s day (December 4) as an occasion for dressing up in costumes, parading, and collecting gifts. A popular carol tells the story of the saint and a special sweet (called Barbara) is served. Christians in the Slavic regions of Eastern Europe keep St Nicholas’ day (December 6) in similar ways and Greeks celebrate St Basil’s day (January 1) with the traditional vasilopita (St Basil’s bread) in which a coin is baked to surprise the lucky finder.
The Great Martyr St BarbaraSt Barbara is first mentioned in a seventh-century Roman Martyrology, some 350 years after her death. The sources of what has been passed down about her were collected by St Simeon Metaphrastes (“the Translator”) in his tenth-century lives of the saints, the Menologion.
Middle Eastern sources record that Barbara was from Heliopolis (Baalbek in present-day Lebanon). Some sources describe her as a native of Heliopolis in Egypt or even of Nicomedia (in Turkey today). All the stories of this martyr say that she was the daughter of a rich pagan named Dioscoros who, after his wife’s death, kept Barbara locked in a tower to keep her from the eyes of strangers.
After a certain time Dioscoros relented and allowed his daughter a measure of freedom. She became acquainted with the Gospel through some young Christian women who befriended her and through a priest fleeing persecution in Alexandria, who ultimately baptized her.
Dioscoros had commissioned the construction of a bath house on his estate. In his absence Barbara had altered the plans to include a third window, to represent the Trinity. When Dioscoros learned the reason for her actions he flew at her in a rage. She escaped and fled from him, using a number of disguises. She was eventually captured and severely beaten.
In the sixth century, relics of St Barbara were brought to Constantinople. Six hundred years later a portion of them was brought to Kiev by Barbara, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, when she married Michael, the Grand Prince of Kiev. Around the same time, the Coptic church of St Cyrus in Old Cairo was rebuilt as the Church of St Barbara to house relics of this saint. She is venerated in all the Churches of East and West. Because of the lack of contemporary witnesses to her struggle, the Roman Church removed her name from their universal calendar. She is still venerated in local Western Churches, particularly in Europe.
In the Middle East, her feast is observed by the preparation of sweets, including the “Barbara.” This is the traditional boiled wheat dish made for memorials of a saint or of the deceased. In this case it is sweetened with pomegranate seeds, raisins, anise and sugar. It is frequently brought to homes by children singing a traditional carol about this saint. They are often costumed to recall the disguises which St Barbara used to elude her father.
St Nicholas the WonderworkerThe earliest written source on the life of St Nicholas that we have comes from the early to mid-ninth century, almost 500 years after his death. There was at least one earlier written life which no longer exists. Earlier testimony to this saint is found in icons, prayers and the existence of churches dedicated to him. St Nicholas is also mentioned in some earlier writings.
According to the ninth and tenth century lives we have, Nicholas was born to wealthy Christian parents in Patara, on the southwest coast of the Roman province of Lycia in Asia Minor. He was orphaned in an epidemic while he was still young and raised by his uncle, the bishop of Patara.
Of a religious disposition, Nicholas was tonsured as a reader by his uncle while quite young and eventually was ordained a priest. Obeying Christ’s words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his own inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.
As a prominent Christian, Nicholas was imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius, but freed when the persecutions ended in 311. In response to his deliverance, Nicholas traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. While there, he reportedly lived with a group of monks in what is today Beit Jala. However Nicholas was not called to the monastic life and returned to Patara.
On the return voyage, the ship was threatened by a powerful storm. The terrified sailors were amazed to see the storm suddenly subside at Nicholas’ prayers. This gave rise to the custom of praying to St Nicholas as protector of seamen.
In 317 Nicholas was chosen as archbishop of Myra, the provincial capital of Lycia. He was neither a great ascetic nor a martyr. His reputation rests on his pastoral concern for the people under his care, particularly the poor and the defenseless.
The tenth-century life of St Nicholas by Simeon Metaphrastes (“the Translator”) tells of secret gift-giving to save an impoverished man’s daughters from penury. St Nicholas secretly left money to provide a dowry for each of the daughters in turn. These stories and more became known in the West, and Nicholas became a favorite saint and gift-giver throughout Europe.
In 325 Nicholas reportedly attended the First Ecumenical Council called by the emperor to combat the Arian schism prevailing in parts of the empire. Always a firm opponent of Arianism, Nicholas reputedly opposed Arius personally at the council. As John the Deacon described it, “Animated like the Prophet Elias with zeal for God, he put the heretic Arius to shame at the synod not only by word but also by deed, smiting him on the cheek.” Nicholas, the account continues, was deposed as a result. His omophorion and Gospel book, signs of his office, were confiscated and he was imprisoned.
During the night the Lord Jesus and the Theotokos appeared to Nicholas in prison, restoring the items taken from him. Icons of St Nicholas often depict this vision of Christ and the Theotokos returning his omophorion and Gospel.
Nicholas became an increasingly influential public figure later in his episcopate. He died in Myra on December 6, 343 and was buried in his cathedral. After the Seljuk Turks conquered the area, Italian merchants in Venice and Bari sought to “rescue” the saint from the Turks. In 1087, seamen broke into Nicholas’ tomb and spirited away the saint’s body to Bari where it was enshrined in a great basilica built in his honor. Today pilgrims still visit Bari to pray at Nicholas’ tomb.