The Real St. Nicholas
The legendary figure of Santa Claus seems to have originated at least partially from the myths surrounding St. Nicholas of Myra (or of Bari), who lived during the fourth century and died December 6, 345 or 352. While there are a great many miracles and events attributed to St. Nicholas, almost all that is known with certainty about him is that he was the Bishop of Myra. He was probably born at Patara in Lycia of Asia Minor (in what is now Turkey) around 270, and was chosen bishop of Myra, the capital of Lycia, when the episcopal seat was vacated. He became known for his extreme piety and zeal, and it is almost certain that he underwent imprisonment during the persecution of Christians under Diocletian. Some histories have said that he was present at the Council of Nicea, but because his name is not mentioned in any of the lists of bishops that attended, it is somewhat doubtful that he was actually there. He died in Myra and his body was buried in the cathedral, where it remained until 1087 at which time it was moved to Bari, Italy.
The Popular Legends of St. Nicholas
Aside from what is historically known to be true about St. Nicholas, there are a great many legends that have sprung up which are not necessarily verified, but are still popular with those who have a devotion to St. Nicholas. He was very pious in his childhood, even to the point where he is said to have eaten only once on Wednesdays and Fridays, to be in accordance with the fasts of those days. He was said to have studied in Egypt. He always had a thirst for religion, both learning about it and practicing it, and when his parents died while he was still young, Nicholas took the large inheritance they left him and committed to using it for charity. From this grew one of the most well-known stories about him. A father of three daughters who had lost all his money, and thus had no dowry for the girls so they could marry, was about to sell them into prostitution when one night a bag or ball of gold showed up inside the man's house mysteriously. St. Nicholas had heard about the man's story and intentions and wanted to use his money to help save the girls from an evil life. The gold sufficed as the eldest daughter's dowry, and she was able to be married. St. Nicholas repeated this twice more for the second and third daughters, so that all three were able to be married. The man waited for St. Nicholas to show up for the third time, to see who it was that was giving his family these gifts, and when he saw St. Nicholas he was overcome with gratitude for this benevolent man who wanted no credit for what he did. It is likely from this story that the idea of Santa Claus began, because in some tellings St. Nicholas threw the bags of gold down the chimney and they may have fallen into a stocking or shoe drying near the fire. It is also for this reason that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of maidens and unmarried women, as well as brides.
St. Nicholas is also known for raising three children from the dead who had been killed and put into a barrel, and thus became the patron saint of children. Legend grew so that he became associated with helping and loving children, and this also contributed to the legend of Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas was said to be staunchly anti-Arianism (there are some accounts that he was present at Nicea and when he heard the views of Arius, Nicholas went over and slapped him), and because of this, with him as bishop, the city of Myra was untouched by that heresy. He also fought steadfastly against any form of Paganism. He was very much an advocate of justice as well and wanted all trials performed in a fair and just manner. He is said to have appeared in the dreams of both the Emperor Constantine as well as the prefect of Constantinople, Ablavius, one night, telling them to release three imperial officers who had been falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death because of Ablavius' jealousy. After being arrested and sentenced to death, the three had prayed to God, asking for help through the merits of St. Nicholas, knowing that St. Nicholas had a great love of justice. When the emperor and prefect realized they had had the same dream with Nicholas threatening them, Constantine let the officers go and wrote a letter to the saint, asking him not to threaten Constantine again.
Devotion to St. Nicholas
Love for and devotion to St. Nicholas continued to grow after his death, and in the 11th century his remains were moved to Bari, Italy in 1087 by sailors who stole them from the cathedral at Myra where they had been buried since his death (some accounts refer to these sailors as thieves, others as men responding to a vision of St. Nicholas telling them to move him so he would be preserved from the coming Muslim conquest). Once his relics were moved to Europe, devotion there to the saint increased a great deal, as well as miracles attributed to him. To this day, it is said that a certain kind of ointment flows from his relics that have medicinal abilities which have healed a great number of the faithful. The number of churches named for him, paintings done of him, and images of him found in various places is incredible considering how little is actually known about him. It is said that he has been represented in more Christian paintings than any other figure besides Mary. He is particularly well-loved in Russia, even being a co-patron saint of the nation, as well as a number of other countries, cities, and churches.
Today, St. Nicholas is the patron of a very diverse group of people, including bakers, barrel makers, sailors, children, druggist, grooms, brides, pilgrims, scholars, thieves, and pharmacists, to name a few, as well as being the patron against imprisonment, against robbers and robberies, and of lawsuits lost unjustly. He is also the patron saint of a number of locations including many Italian cities such as Bari, Naples, Lecco, and Bardolino; the Greek Catholic Church in America; a few cities in Slovakia and Slovenia; Portsmouth, England; and Russia.
St. Nicholas is still celebrated around the world each year with various customs, though in some places the real saint has been largely forgotten and replaced by the legend of Santa Claus. Catholic children often remember St. Nicholas on his feast day of December 6 by placing their boots out the night of December 5 to receive small gifts and candy from him, as he is most often remembered as a great gift-giver. This is particularly popular in Germany and German-populated areas, including at least parts of the United States. Most of the varying celebrations revolve around children and whether or not they have been good throughout the year – children who were not good are punished, while those who were good are rewarded – much like with Christmas gifts and Santa Claus. St. Nicholas is also, as stated, a very important saint in the life of the Russian church, and is greatly celebrated there.