Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century bishop known for his secret gift giving. Due to the number of miracles granted through his intercession, he became known to some as Nicholas the Wonderworker. The modern-day Santa Claus is modeled after him and is named after the Dutch Sint-Niklaas, which was shortened to Sinterklass and Anglicized to Santa Clause.
Nicholas was born on March 15, 270 in Asia Minor in the city of Parara and grew up in Myra, a city in Lycia, at the time when the area was heavily influenced by Greek heritage. He came from a wealthy Christian family and is said to have been very religious from an early age. When his parents died during an epidemic, Nicholas was taken in and raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Parara, who later ordained him as a priest.
Not much is known about the life of St. Nicholas, but it is said that in his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, and soon after, he became the Bishop of Myra. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who fiercely persecuted Christians, Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned. He was later released at the accession of Constantine, who legalized the Christian faith in the Roman Empire.
While this information has been contested, he is thought to have been present at the Council of Nicaea in 325. A famous tale from this council involves Nicholas punching the heretical priest Arius in the face for denying the divinity of Christ. Although expelled from the council and jailed for this breach of Episcopal etiquette, a vision of Mary purportedly appeared to the other Council Fathers, defending Nicholas’ action, and thus was he readmitted to the council.
Nicholas died on December 6, 343 and was buried in a crypt at his cathedral church. In 1034 when Myra was taken over by the Saracens, his relics were taken by some Italians and translated to Bari, Italy where Pope Urban II was present at the enshrining of the relics.
The lack of definitive information on Saint Nicholas has not kept him from becoming one of the most popular saints as he is honored by both the Eastern and Western churches and is credited with an extensive list of miracles. It is claimed that, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, he is the most popularly depicted saint.
Stories depicting his generosity and kindness abound. One of the most well known legends involves a man who did not have enough money in order for his three daughters to be wed; so in order to keep them from being forced into prostitution, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold into the man’s house for three nights, providing enough money for a proper dowry for each daughter.
The tradition of gift giving on St. Nicholas’ feast day originates from this story, as children put their shoes out on the night of December 6 in hopes of receiving a small gift from the saint.