Who’s St. Nicholas?

Tracing Santa Claus' history to a fourth century saint

by Colleen Kelly

Kids can spot Santa Claus in the twinkling of an eye. But who knows the real St. Nick, a spry guy with olive skin who lived in what's now Turkey and whose ample compassion inspired century after century of legend? We'll introduce you to him today.

Just the Facts

The legends about St. Nicholas are abundant, but the facts are few. Historians agree that he was born around the year 280 in Asia Minor. During his youth, Nicholas's homeland was under the control of Diocletian, the Roman emperor. Anti-Christian edicts made it a dangerous time for a Christian like Nicholas, and many believers were martyred.

Life got easier in 312, when a new emperor, Constantine, called off the persecutions. The next year, Nicholas became a bishop. We have no records of his years as a bishop, but it seems he was revered as a kindly fellow who helped the poor and sick. He died on December 6, sometime between 343 and 353, and was buried in the town of Myra.

His Legend Grows

Stories about the beloved bishop spread, and a church was built in his honor in Myra. Some stories spoke of miracles, but the story most told simply highlighted his generosity. According to medieval biographers, Nicholas's parents died and left him an inheritance. Soon after, he heard that a neighbor had three daughters and no money to feed them–much less provide dowries. There was talk they would have to prostitute themselves to survive.

When Nicholas learned of their plight, he anonymously left three small bags of gold coins at the family's house. This tale, coupled with Nicholas's celebrated kindness to children, appears to have inspired the tradition of giving gifts on his feast day of December 6.


For hundreds of years, the church at Myra attracted pilgrims. Then, in 1087, it attracted some Italians with larcenous intentions. The men smashed into the sarcophagus that contained the saint's bones and spirited them away to the town of Bari, near the heel of boot-shaped Italy. Soon the church at Bari had become a great pilgrimage site. Plays and paintings depicted the saint, and the cult of Nicholas grew.

Before long, Nicholas was the patron saint of–take a deep breath–sailors, children, unmarried girls, barrel makers, orphans, prisoners, lawyers, newlyweds, Greeks, Russians, and just about everyone else. He is even the patron saint of pawnbrokers, who still indicate their trade by displaying three golden balls, a reference to the three bags of gold St. Nicholas gave to those unmarried girls 1,700 years ago.

When Protestants condemned the practice of praying to saints, St. Nicholas's popularity waned in many Protestant countries. But not in the Netherlands, where the Dutch continued to revere St. Nicholas, pronounced "Sinterklaas." In 1626, a group of Dutch settlers traveled to America in a ship adorned with a St. Nicholas figurehead. It wasn't long before the legend of "Santa Claus" took root in the New World.

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Knowledge News 12.22.06