The legend of Santa Claus, the image of Father Christmas, and the basis for most legendary Christmas gift bringers of old world Europe all has their genesis in the real-world figure of Saint Nicholas. His story as a benevolent religious figure and giver of gifts has led to a centuries old reputation that has influenced seasonal charity for generations.
He was born of a wealthy family in the village of Patara, located now in modern-day Turkey. Legend recalls young Nicholas growing up in a privileged situation, his parents being quite wealthy Christians. But their lives were taken as an epidemic swept through their city and young Nicholas went to live with the village priests, where he had an uncle whose name was also Nicholas. It was in this setting that Nicholas became devout, his piety leading him to a fiery conviction of Jesus Christ at a time when Catholic priests and bishops suffered greatly under Roman rule and were frequently cast into prisons.
He was ordained a priest, and later a Bishop, at a very young age. Some records indicate he may have been the youngest bishop ever in the church up to that time. His desires to learn more and to do well were legendary. As a youth he wanted to understand Christ well by going to the land where Jesus dwelt. It was during an excursion there a storm arose, tossing the small boat he and others were traveling in too-and-fro, and causing panic among its passengers. Of all aboard only Nicholas had the presence of mind to pray and sailors upon the vessel became convinced that Nicholas had found favor with God because only after he prayed did the winds cease and the waves diminish.
It would not be the first time that a miracle was credited to him.
In one particularly gruesome tale Nicholas chanced upon an inn where he discovered the dead bodies of three children stuffed into a pickling barrel, their murder accomplished by a vicious butcher. Nicholas prayed, causing the resurrection of the children and bringing justice against the butcher.
Nicholas’ reputation for his kindness to children, for giving anonymously and for secret saving acts of generosity would spread through-out the world at a time long before media and mass communication. By word of mouth from sailors, children and Christian followers tales of his goodness spread.
In one story his own city was under siege from a terrible famine with thousands of people going hungry. As bishop at the time, Nicholas took responsibility. After praying he determined his best course of action was to visit the sea captains of vessels anchored in the port city. He explained to them the hunger of the people and pleaded with each of the captains to give up just a small amount of the grain contained for shipment aboard their ships, figuring that if each gave a small portion it would take care of the needs of the people in the hungry city. He promised that if the captains did this they would be blessed and would somehow be forgiven for arriving at their final destinations with less than they were contracted to deliver.
The captains did as Nicholas requested and the city was save. But then the miracle happened: those sea captains spread throughout the world and arrived at their destinations with full vessels. The event so touched the captains and the sailors aboard the ships that they told the tales of Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, wherever they traveled.
Perhaps the most common tale told of Nicholas is of a more personal nature. As bishop he was concerned for all who lived near him, even those who were not Catholic. He learned of a man with a large family of daughters and, being poor, the man was troubled that he eldest daughter approaching marrying age would not have a dowry, which is either a sum of money or material possessions used to help set up a new household and establish a new family. The man was seriously considering selling his daughter into slavery so that he might be able to prepare dowries for his younger daughters.
Bishop Nicholas heard of this man’s woes and determined to secretly given him a small amount of money that could serve the purpose of helping the child avoid a life a misery. Covering himself in the hooded deep red cloak of a bishop he went to the home of the man in the dark of night. The legend is told many ways. Some versions of the story say he tossed the small bag of gold through a window or a door of the house, and others say he actually entered the home and placed it there. One fantastic telling of the story says that Nicholas tossed it up high over the roof line of the home and down the chimney.
Regardless, somehow the small amount of money found its way into the stocking of the young girl it was intended to save and Nicholas escaped from the home undetected. The man and his family were stunned, gratified with their good fortune.
But years later, when their situation had not improved and yet another daughter came of age, Nicholas again performed the secret night duty of an anonymous gift. And again he was not caught. But the father of the home, having experienced the miracle twice, could no longer live without expressing his thanks and began to scheme for catching the secret gift bringer for his third daughter, when she came of age. Night after night he stayed awake, waiting for the miracle and when it happened he caught Nicholas in the act. The good bishop tried to swear the man to secrecy but the father could not contain himself and told his neighbors and friends that it was Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who had brought the gifts in the dead of night.
Through these and dozens of other legendary tales of saving, giving and anonymous service the reputation of Nicholas grew while yet alive. But his motivations remained purely religious, and when it came to Christianity Nicholas was a fanatic.
History records his presence, as a Bishop, at the Council of Nicea. There the doctrine of the Catholic faith was debated. It was a contentious affair and at one point the very divinity of Jesus Christ was questioned. A man vehement in his belief against Jesus so angered Nicholas that he struck him, defending Christ in a way similar to that of Peter, who smote off the ear of the Roman soldier who came to take Christ away. But Nicholas did not have Jesus there to save him and he was cast into prison, his priestly robes stripped from him.
There in the dark of prison Nicholas prayed and in vision received a visitation of Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary. They returned to Nicholas his robes, much to the shock and dismay to the prison guards. Nicholas was later released.
These stories and more led to great respect for Nicholas. His name was a common as that of Christ in the old world and over time more than 2000 churches would bear his name all over the world. Stories would be told of him saving children, women, sailors and people in need with legendary acts of kindness. He became a model of compassionate service, especially to children.
The tales have been adopted in various cultures and, in many cases, adapted to other ancient legendary figures of mythology. The images of Nicholas have merged with Norse legends of Norway, who would storm into villages and towns on a horse or in a sleigh pulled by goats or reindeer. The tales of Nicholas were blended with the figure of La Befana in Italy, with Krampus in Austria, and the ancient Dutch gift bringers who would place small coins in the shoes of good children.
As future generations of European immigrants would come to the New World of America they brought their stories and traditions of St. Nicholas with them. His name first appeared in early American media of the 18th century and later his name would more as languages blended into the culture of New York, where some came to call him Santa Claus. Over the next two centuries the image of Nicholas and the questions surrounding his legends would rise and fall with the generations. Santa Claus, and the fantastical tales of his continued exploits each Christmas season, would grow in popularity as the image was hijacked by marketers and merchandise peddlers. Saint Nicholas would remain a background figure, pious and religious, honored as a bringer of miracles more than a giver of gifts, a venerated saint whose miracles were celebrated every December 6th.
In future generations the Catholic church would debate the status of Nicholas as a saint, unable to unravel the truth from the legends of the man. In the late 20th century the Church “downgraded” the status of Nicholas and others to that of a “minor saint”, an admission of sorts that the information floating out there about the true life of the man was so blended with fiction as to make separation between the two impossible.
But more than 1500 years of veneration in lands all over the world has led to a continued presence of Nicholas in cultures all over the world and an inescapable connection to the modern legend of Santa Claus.