Who Is Saint Nicholas?
The true story of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus in German), begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Orphaned as a young boy, he was left with substantial financial means by his parents. He used this inheritance to benefit others, especially children. Deeply religious, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra in Turkey and played an important leadership role in the Church during the period of the Arian heresy, when most of the bishops, and probably even the pope, had adopted the heretical position.
Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar).
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need. Called the "Wonderworker," he was well known for his generosity to children, hence his association with the legend of Santa Claus. Saint Nick as another name for Santa Claus persists to this day. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of virgins. His patronage of purity may explain his association with the "naughty" and "nice" categories when Saint Nick checks and rechecks his list. The red suit with white ermine trim associated with Santa Claus represents the episcopal robes that St. Nicholas wore as he went, in the middle of the night of Christmas Eve after Mass, taking presents to the poor people of his diocese who might otherwise not be able to celebrate Christmas.
Legend has it that St. Nicholas became aware of a desperately poor parishioner having three daughters with no dowry to recommend them for marriage. The father had planned to sell them into prostitution to provide some means of support. By night, St. Nicholas secretly brought bags of gold on three separate occasions to the man's home. These generous visitations allowed the three daughters to have sufficient means to avoid prostitution and later strike a marriage covenant.
On the third visit to deliver the gift, Nicholas was caught in the act of generosity by the grateful father. Many make the Santa Claus-like association of this story to St. Nicholas the gift-giver. These three visitations of St. Nicholas may have been Charles Dickens' inspiration for the Three Ghosts of Christmas in his famous story, "A Christmas Carol."
Sailors, claiming St. Nicholas as patron, carried stories of his favor and protection far and wide. St. Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports. As his popularity spread during the Middle Ages, he became the patron saint of Apulia (Italy), Sicily, Greece, and Lorraine (France), and many cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Following his baptism, Grand Prince Vladimir I brought St. Nicholas' stories and devotion to St. Nicholas to his homeland where Nicholas became the most beloved saint. Nicholas was so widely revered that thousands of churches were named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England. Nicholas' tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.
Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. For both the religious and commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics. In the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari succeeded in spiriting away the bones, bringing them to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy. An impressive church was built over St. Nicholas' crypt and many faithful journeyed to honor the saint who had rescued children, prisoners, sailors, famine victims, and many others through his compassion, generosity, and the countless miracles attributed to his intercession. The Nicholas shrine in Bari was one of medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centers and Nicholas became known as "Saint in Bari."
To this day pilgrims and tourists visit Bari's great Basilica di San Nicola. Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Catholics and Orthodox and honored by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life.