As a young man, he inherits gold from his parents, and he hears of a man in town who's become desperately poor and is thinking about selling off his own daughters. Nicholas bags up some of that gold and throws it through his window. It's used as a dowry for one of the daughters. He returns two times so the other daughters might be able to marry.
Q: What did it mean then to sell off one's daughters?
A: Prostitution. We have decrees dating back to the early days of the Roman empire trying to curb that activity and try to prevent parents from selling daughters into prostitution and children into slavery.
While it seems inhumane, those options become very live and real when your options are to starve or freeze to death. It gives us a glimpse into some of the hardships of the time.
Q: Was he martyred like so many other saints?
A: No. He lives to a ripe old age.
Part of what appeals to people about Nicholas is precisely the ordinariness of his story and his life. Going back to that fourth century, most of the stories were about saints [who] died for the faith, were martyred in grisly ways. Or performed supernatural miracles or spent their lives in the desert as hermits.
He is an ordinary guy, doing ordinary acts of charity and working on behalf of the people. He's a saint to whom people can relate. He becomes the patron saint of sailors and children and unwed women, bakers, brewers and apothecaries, perfumers. Everybody loves Saint Nicholas.
Q: He sounds a bit like the apostle Peter, a man who isn't in a sphere above everyone else. Does that sound right?
A: Peter is such a relatable saint precisely because he doubts, he denies knowing the Lord, he questions, he has all the failings. He is you and me. We have those same doubts and questions.