Nicholas was born during the third century in the village of Patara (now known as Demre) on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. At the time the area was Greek. Nicholas was born into a wealthy Christian family and his parents raised him to be a devout Christian. While Nicholas was still young, his parents died in an epidemic.
With his inheritance, Nicholas assisted the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He was made bishop of Myra and was known for his generosity to those in need, his love of children, and his concern for sailors and ships. During the persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died on December 6, 343 and was buried in his cathedral church. A liquid substance, similar to clear water, was observed at his tomb. It was believed to have healing powers. This fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas and the anniversary of his death became a day of celebration known as St. Nicholas Day.
Legends of St. Nicholas:
Many stories and legends have become associated with St. Nicholas as a protector and helper of those in need. Perhaps the most well known tells of a poor man with three daughters. Because the man could not afford to offer a dowry, the custom of that day, his daughters appeared to be destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold was left at their home to provide the needed dowry. The bags of gold were said to have been tossed through an open window, landing in the stockings or shoes left to dry before the fire. This led to the custom of children hanging a stocking for a gift from St. Nicholas. Sometimes this story is told with gold balls being left, instead of bags of gold, which is why St. Nicholas is sometimes shown holding three oranges that represent the gold balls
Nicholas is also associated closely with sailors and ships. A story is told that as a young man Nicholas made a pilgrimmage to the Holy Land. Returning home, a storm threatened to wreck the ship he was traveling on. Nicholas calmly prayed and the winds and the waves suddenly calmed. The terrified salilors were amazed at what they saw. Today, Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers as well as a long list of other causes!
Santa Claus and St. Nicholas:
So how is it that the kindly and good Bishop of Myra, Nicholas, was transformed into a jolly, fat, red-suited American symbol we know as Santa Claus? There are several layers to think about in answering this question.
First, we know that the first Europeans who came to the New World brought St. Nicholas with them. We see it in the catherdral that was dedicated to him in Greenland by the Vikings. We see it also in the naming of Mole-Saint-Nicolas in Haiti by Columbus on December 6, 1492 on his first journey to the Americas.
But during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, both reformers and counter-reformers tried to eliminate all customs related to St. Nicholas (as well as all saints, in general). This was especially true in England. The first Colonists, primarily Puritans and Protestant reformers, did not bring Nicholas traditions with them. There were pockets where the feast of St. Nicholas was observed, including with the colonial Germans in Pennsylvania and the New York Dutch, but, for the most part, St. Nicholas Day, and even Christmas Day, were not observed as religious holidays. The season after the hard work of harvesting was largely a time of raucous drinking and public disorder.
This began to change, partly as society came to view children and childhood in a new way. Children were to be nurtured and protected. Family life was given new importance. The season became more focused on home. And St. Nicholas began to fit the changing times. Our modern day Santa Claus began to take shape with the publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1822 and the drawings by political cartoonist Thomas Nast during the Civil War. The name Santa Claus may be an American accented version of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas.
Without doubt, the image of Santa Claus has been exploited over the years, becoming, as some have called, an icon of consumerism. But if you look beneath, it is still possible to see the goodness of St. Nicholas present in Santa Claus. Whenever we emulate St. Nicholas’ example to protect children and to help those in need, we keep in mind the meaning of the season. At his best, this is still what Santa Claus can mean as well. Happy St. Nicholas Day!