The American view of Santa Claus is a far cry from the true inspiration for this merry, generous, magical character.
The Orthodox Christian Church and the Roman Catholic Church commemorate the death of the real Saint Nicholas on Dec. 6 every year. For many Orthodox and Catholic families, Saint Nicholas Day is one of gift giving and celebration.
Saint Nicholas was born in A.D. 280 in Patara, a city in Asia Minor, or what is now known as Turkey. He was the only son of his noble, wealthy and faithful parents.
As a young man, Saint Nicholas became a priest. When his parents died, he distributed his inheritance and property to the needy.
Saint Nicholas was a generous man, but one special kindness led to modern images of Ole St. Nick, Pere Noel, Sinter Klaas and Santa Claus.
There was a father living in Patara who had once been wealthy and renowned, but he suddenly lost everything and had fallen into poverty. Many who respected him as a wealthy man scorned and ridiculed him as a peasant.
This man had three beautiful, virgin daughters, but had no money to provide a dowry for them. He knew he would have to abandon them to prostitution.
Saint Nicholas was disturbed by the state of this family and decided to help. But, not wanting to embarrass the man by giving him money, and wishing his own identity to remain hidden, Saint Nicholas decided to deliver the gold at night–in secret.
Some accounts say when Saint Nicholas threw the bag of gold in the window it landed in a stocking hung by the fire to dry (hence the tradition of hanging stockings on the mantle). The father found the gold the next day, rejoiced, thanked God and used the money to marry off his oldest daughter.
Saint Nicholas, seeing the good thing the father did with the money, decided he would deliver more gold to the needy family. The father again used the riches as a dowry, this time for his second daughter. Excited and grateful to God for the blessing, the father prayed and asked that his benefactor would be revealed to him.
The third night when Saint Nicholas tossed the bag of gold through the window, the father heard it hit the ground and ran after Saint Nicholas. When he finally caught up with the saint, the father recognized Saint Nicholas and fell at his feet thanking him for delivering his daughters.
Saint Nicholas made the man promise that he would tell no one of the gold until the saint had died.
Saint Nicholas went on to minister and travel, performing miracles and helping the needy. He later became a bishop and died on Dec. 6, 343. Today, the faithful still celebrate his memory on Dec. 6. Saint Nicholas is also honored as the patron saint of children and the patron saint of Russia.
Many Europeans celebrate Saint Nicholas Day by placing their shoes outside their doors on the Eve of Saint Nicholas (Dec. 5), hoping the saint will fill them with fruit and candy. Many Orthodox and Catholic families will attend a divine liturgy in honor of the saint. Still others choose to celebrate traditions of gift giving and community service on that day.
Because Saint Nicholas Day falls close to Christmas, many countries have combined the traditions for celebration on Christmas day.
Through years of embellishment and combining several different cultures’ stories, Americans have ended up with their own icon for Saint Nicholas in Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas’ legacy of generosity and compassion has translated even into the fantastic stories of Santa Claus. But, how much better is it to understand the real Saint Nicholas and retell his story this time of year?
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.