Around Christmas time, we often get so caught up in the modern character of Santa Claus – who is, of course, real – that we forget Saint Nicholas was an ancient historical figure as well. He wasn’t born last Tuesday, after all – this guy’s been kicking around for a while.
Born in the year 270 AD, Saint Nick was a Christian bishop from Asia Minor – modern day Turkey – under the Roman Empire. Because of the many miracles attributed to him, he has been known historically as “Nicholas the Wonderworker.”
Saint Nicholas has been closely associated with cats throughout history, and the story dates back over a millennium and a half.
In 327 AD, construction began on the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It was thought to be fitting, because Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of fishing and fishermen, which was the main profession on the island.
The project was overseen by another Christian Saint, St. Helena. However, not long after the building work began, the island was plagued by a major problem: dangerous snakes.
Following a bad drought, swarms of venomous snakes started to multiply across the island, driving off not only the builders working on the monastery, but many of the island’s ordinary inhabitants as well. There was simply no way to complete the work in such a dangerous and hazardous environment.
This is where Saint Helena came in. Undeterred by the challenge, the Turkish Christian Saint devised a plan to fight the infestation.
Gathering as many as 1,000 cats from nearby Persia and Egypt, Helena had the feline mercenaries shipped to the island and trained them to react to two bells: one for feeding time, and one for snake hunting time.
What ensued was a series grueling scraps and skirmishes across the island, with claw and fang clashing in a brutal battle to the death.
Sadly, the battles left many cats with bad injures, missing eyes and noses. But in the end, the snakes were purged from the island, and construction of the monastery was successfully completed.
While the structure was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the following centuries in wars and political turbulence, the cats remained a constant and iconic feature of the island. Eventually, they even became their own unofficial sub-breed of feline, known as the “Cyprus Cat.”
However, in the modern era, in 1983, when the monastery was given over to a group of nuns, the cats around the grounds had dissipated over time, and the snakes had returned.
Taking a leaf out of Saint Helena’s book, the nuns took in cats from around the island, and brought in a few more, and just like in the old tradition, were able to rid the monastery of the serpent menace once more.
Today the monastery is known for taking in any stray cats they come across as a thanks for the creatures’ centuries of faithful service.
In fact, to this day, on Saint Nicholas’ feast day, it’s a Cypriot tradition to go fishing, and give away one’s catch to the monestary’s cats.
And that, boys and girls, is how aul’ Saint Nick became associated with our little feline friends. Maybe consider giving your pet cat an extra bit of grub this Christmas in honour of this old tradition.