Saint Nicholas was born in the city of Patara , a port on the Mediterranean sea to a very wealthy family of Greek Christians, and his uncle was the Bishop of Myra. He followed in his uncle's footsteps and some time after becoming educated was ordained a Priest by his uncle. Unfortunately while still a young man, his parents passed away in a epidemic. Following the words of Christ - “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” he sold his inheritance and distributed all of the money to his poor.
In Michael the Archimandrite's Life of Saint Nicholas, we find the story of the dowry - a very devout Christian had been very successful and wealthy in life, but had lost all of his money due to the "plotting of Satan". Because he had lost all of his wealth, he could no longer afford proper dowries for his three daughters, destining the three women to lives of prostitutes (as they would be unable to secure jobs). Saint Nicholas wished to help them but didn't want them to suffer any sort of public humiliation for accepting charity. So, under the cover of night, he snuck near the house and threw a purse full of gold coins into the house. When the second daughter had her wedding arraigned, Saint Nicholas threw a second bag through the window for her dowry as well.
The father arranged marriage for his third daughter but then secretly camped out in the main room of the house every night, waiting to see if another bag of gold would come through the window. When it did, Saint Nicholas was caught in the act. The father fell to his knees in thanksgiving, but Saint Nicholas told him to tell no one of the gifts. Because the story tells that all three bags of gold landed in stockings or shoes that had been left to dry by the fire, a tradition of hanging stockings and shoes by the fire was formed. A variation of the story tells that Saint Nicholas threw gold balls instead of three bags of gold - in some artwork Saint Nicholas is represented by three gold balls or three oranges.
Sometime after, Saint Nicholas took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and found himself and the crew of his ship in a violent storm. Tradition holds that Saint Nicholas rebuked the waves and immediately the storm and waves calmed. He is often venerated as a patron saint of travelers and sailors from this miracle. Upon his return, he was saddened to hear of the death of his uncle. The priests of the town gathered together and decided that whoever was the first priest to enter into the church the next morning would be the new Bishop. Saint Nicholas, unknowing of the agreement, went to the church early in the morning to pray and was named the new Bishop of Myra.
During the Diocletian persecutions, Saint Nicholas was arrested and tortured for refusing to recant his faith. Several stories attest that he was released under the orders of Emperor Constantine the great. It is right after this time that another of his famous stories is told by Michael the Archimandrite. Three men had been arrested and condemned to death because a juror had been bribed to place the blame on them. On the morning of their execution, Saint Nicholas walked through the crowd, gently pushed the executioner's sword down and released the men from their chains.
One legend tells that three young children were playing around the town when they were lured into the house by the local butcher. The butcher killed them, intending them to be used as meat but Saint Nicholas came into the shop and realized what had happened. He made the sign of the cross and prayed to God for assistance - the three young boys were suddenly restored to life.
In 325 AD, Saint Nicholas was invited to and attended the First Council of Nicea. He is listed as the 151st attendee by Theodore the Lector and it was written that he was a staunch defender of Trinitarianism. His opposition to Arianism was so strong that one story tells that during the Council he slapped one of the Arian defenders across the face. When he was arrested, Christ and the Virgin Mary appear to him in his cell and he tells them that he was imprisoned for loving them. He is then freed and his bishop titles restored - this scene of him slapping Arius is featured often in Orthodox Icons.
One story tells that many years after his death the people of Myra were celebrating the Saint on the eve of his feast day when a band of pirates from Crete raided the town. On their way out of town, a young boy named Basilios was captured with the intent of making him a slave. The boy was selected by the Emir to be the personal cup bearer. Over the next year, his parent's prayed day and night for Saint Nicholas's intercession. The night before the feast day, the parents did not partake in the festivities, choosing instead to stay home and quietly pray. As Basilios was performing his duties to the Emir, he was suddenly picked up into the air where he saw a vision of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas blessed him and brought him back home to joyful parents.
Saint Nicholas is celebrated quite heavily in the Eastern Orthodox church, though also very heavily celebrated in the Catholic church as well. In Greek and Italian traditions he is very often named as the patron saint of Sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing and is to this day celebrated as the Patron Saint of the Hellenic Navy.
His tomb in Myra became an extremely popular pilgrimage site but some of his relics were sent to Venice and Bari due to increasing violence and wars due to the crusades and Islamic invasions. The Bari shrine in particular became one of the most famous pilgrimage centers of Medieval Europe and Saint Nicholas became known as Saint in Bari. Pilgrims and tourists can visit Bari's great Basilica di San Nicola to this day.