The fame achieved by Roman Catholic saint, Nicholas of Myra (died 345 AD) has continued to grow since his imprisonment and subsequent death at the hands of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. The much-loved figure that we associate with the Christmas holiday came to be known simply as "Santa Claus."
Separating fact from legend in the story of St. Nicholas is not difficult. So little is known of his personal life, that we must rely on the legends that have survived. As early as the sixth century, churches were being built in his honor throughout Europe. By the Middle Ages, he had become the patron saint of both Greece and Russia. Devotion to Nicholas declined during the Protestant Reformation of the fifteenth century. The Netherlands was the only Protestant nation to maintain and embellish the legend of Nicholas. The Dutch kept his feast day of December 6 as the time to lavish presents on children who left their shoes out the night before. It was the Dutch who brought the custom of "Santa Claus" to the United States. By the middle of the nineteenth century America had embraced the custom as the center around which all of Christmas revolved.
Born to Wealth
Nicholas of Myra was born early in the fourth century AD in Patara, a city in the ancient district of Lycia, in southern Asia Minor (modern Turkey). His parents were wealthy and Nicholas might have lived the life of a spoiled son. Instead, it was reported that from childhood he lived a holy and humble life. When his parents died of a plague, Nicholas began to serve the poor near his home and in the surrounding towns and countryside.
An editorial from a December 1998 issue of The Ukranian Weekly, noted that, according to legend, Nicholas, became the bishop of Myra after the bishop of that city died and other bishops gathered to elect a new prelate. They asked God to show them a worthy successor. Apparently the oldest of the bishops had a vision in his sleep that the first man to enter the church in the morning to pray should be consecrated. That person was Nicholas.
By the time Nicholas died, on December 6, 345, word of his kind deeds and purported miracles was widespread public knowledge. The Roman Emperor Diocletion persecuted him for his Christian faith. Nicholas was buried in the church at Myra, where he had served as bishop. By the eleventh century, his reputation had spread as far as Italy, due in part to merchants and sailors who traveled throughout Europe and Asia. Italian sailors took Nicholas' bones to Bari, in the Puglia region of southern Italy. A Benedictine abbot named Elia ordered the construction of a cathedral to properly house the relics. Pope Urban II officially dedicated the Basilica San Nicola when the relics were entombed. These bones reportedly turned into liquid. The container holding this liquid is still carried as the centerpiece in a parade honoring him in Bari, on his feast day of December 6. Reportedly, the scent of this liquid is like that of a sweet perfume, making him the patron saint of perfumers.
One of the most famous stories about Nicholas was that he used his wealth to protect three young girls, whose father was too poor to provide them with adequate dowries. Without dowries, the girls were doomed to a life of prostitution as the only means of supporting themselves. Nicholas, it was said, put gold in each of three bags and threw them at the girls' window. In a book titled Saints Preserve Us! authors Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers explain that three balls representing financial aid in time of need, became the emblem of the pawn brokers guild. Their symbol was derived from this legend of St. Nicholas.
Defender of Christianity
In author John Delaney's Dictionary of the Saints, Nicholas is said to have forced a governor, Eustaathius, to admit that he had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death. Nicholas appeared in Emperor Constantine's dream to inform the emperor that three imperial officers, condemned to death at Constantinople, were innocent. Constantine freed them the next morning. As a result, Nicholas became known as the patron saint of prisoners.
A rather offbeat story recounted by Kelly and Rogers, tells of Nicholas visiting a local butcher during a famine. To his surprise, he was served meat. Suspecting the worst, Nicholas proceeded to his host's cellar, finding three barrels containing three murdered boys in brine. The bishop lost no time in restoring them to life, and "has been a patron of children-in-a-pickle ever since." His acts of kindness and miracles for children, carried the reputation of Nicholas to the far corners of the Roman Empire.
Some argue that Santa Claus is based on the Germanic god, Thor, who was associated with winter and the Yule log and rode on a chariot drawn by goats named Cracker and Gnasher. That the historical person of Nicholas became transformed into the kindly Santa Claus from a pagan legend was due to the notoriety he gained by extending a helping hand in the aid of children. His was not an age known for protecting children. Instead they were often left to beg when they lost their parents or lived in poverty.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Nicholas legend was that his story influenced future generations to demonstrate kindness to children, at least once a year. The modern tradition has remained true to the simple bishop of Myra, who devoted his life to helping the poor.
Further Reading on St. Nicholas
Delaney, John J. Pocket Dictionary of Saints, Image Books, 1983.
Kelly, Sean and Rosemary Rogers, Saints Preserve Us! Random House, 1993.
Koenig-Bricker, Woodeene. 365 Saints, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.
St. Joseph's Daily Missal, official daily prayer and Mass book of the Roman Catholic Church, 1955.
The Ukranian Weekly, December 13, 1998.
Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1995. Available at: http://www.brittanica.com.