St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycea, the 4th century bishop of a minor Cappodocian town, is the only saint that the modern world still venerates, under the guise of “Santa Claus”, the secular patron saint of the “holiday season”, or as the French call it, “les fêtes de fin d’année”- “the end-of-the-year holidays”, when secular society celebrates the vestiges of Christmas, the feast of our Lord’s Incarnation. For Orthodox Christians Saint Nicholas is definitely part of the Christmas season. His feast day is a bright point during the Nativity fast, and at the Vigil Service, along with glorifying the Saint, we chant festal hymns that anticipate the Nativity. But he is a much-beloved personage in his own right, with two major feast days in his honor, and with his own day each week, Thursday, when the liturgical hymns of the Octoechos honor him along with the apostles.

There probably isn’t a single Orthodox family that doesn’t have a personal story of a miracle worked by Saint Nicholas, or of assistance received by his prayers, no matter what country or culture they might come from. His feast day is the most common “slava”, or patron saint of a family or clan amongst the Serbs. Many Russians would be shocked to learn that St. Nicholas wasn’t Russian. All of the Western European countries and the Scandinavian nations think of St. Nicholas as of one of their own. And your average American would find it hard to believe that the original Santa Claus was actually born in a seaside town in modern day Turkey. St. Nicholas’ miracles are of a practical nature. Often they are works of charity or provide a way out of seemingly impossible circumstances. Many of them have to do with children. Or they speak of justice: wrongs are righted, the innocent are saved at the last minute, and miscarriages of justice are corrected.  

There is an entire subset of St. Nicholas stories from pagan and non Christian peoples, collected by Russian missionaries or Russian émigrés, when they ended up in faraway lands, living amidst a foreign culture.  My all time favorite St. Nicholas story of this genre was often recounted by Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky) of blessed memory, Primate of the ROCOR from 1964-1985. This miracle took place in Harbin, Northestern China, where Metropolitan Philaret lived from 1920 right up until his departure for Australia in 1962.

Harbin was originally a Russian railroad town, founded when the Trans Siberian railroad was extended on through China, and remained a thoroughly Russian enclave for long after the Russian revolution. Russians were the elite of the city and outnumbered the Chinese, mostly menial laborers, up until 1935, when that branch of the railroad was finally sold to the Chinese. Russian Orthodoxy was the major religion of Harbin, and there were more than twenty churches in the city, one of them dedicated to St. Nicholas. As was common throughout the Russian empire, there was a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas at the train station, with a large icon of the Saint in an ornate riza. St. Nicholas was the special protector of travelers, and many people would light a candle before this icon and say a prayer before embarking upon their voyage. The station was cleaned and maintained by Chinese workers, who were well aware of the Russians’ veneration for the Saint depicted on the ornate icon, and called St. Nicholas “the old man at the train station”.

The train station and st. Nicholas Cathedral in Harbin

Located in Northeastern China, Harbin is intersected by the Songhua or Sungari River. It gets extremely cold in Harbin in the winter, the city is still famous today for its annual ice festival, and the river freezes over completely. As in many Siberian city, once a river freezes over it turns into a pathway and often even a driveway up until spring. Somewhere around 1925, in November or early December, as winter was still settling in, the Russians working at or traveling from the Harbin train station saw a ragged Chinese man come running in. He headed straight for the St. Nicholas chapel and fell before the large, ornate icon. Then he raised his arms up to the Saint and began to shout at him in Mandarin.  The thin layer of ice that had frozen over his clothing began to melt and a puddle formed. He was soaking wet. An interpreter was found and the man told his story. He had left the train station in the early morning hours and had decided to take a short cut home, heading across the Songhua River, which had just recently frozen over. As he got towards the middle of the river he realized that the ice hadn’t set nearly as solidly as he had thought, and before he knew it, it cracked and he was flailing in the icy waters. The man remembered the icon at the train station and all the candles burning before it, and called out, “Old man at the train station, Help! Get me out!” And before he knew what was happening, a hand was extended to him, pulled him out of the water, and there he was, standing at the river’s edge. Shaken by this miracle, by St. Nicholas’ quick and ready assistance to, not one of “them”, but to him, a non-Orthodox Chinese, he ran back to the train station to thank “the old man”, and to tell his people what had happened. After this miracle almost as many Chinese would light candles and pray to ‘the old man” at the St. Nicholas chapel. Harbin was occupied by the Soviet Red Army in 1945 and transferred to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1946. The St. Nicholas Chapel was shut down back in 1929, when the Soviet government took firm control of the Chinese Eastern railway, and the fate of the icon “of the Old Man” is unknown. But the memory of the Old Man who saved not only Russian exiles, but also Mandarin workers, who didn’t differentiate between “us” and “them”, who begged God for mercy and charity and justice for all people, of all nations, lives on. St. Nicholas remains our guiding light, leading us to the Savior, the Source of those very virtues, Love Incarnate.

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