Dec. 6 is the feast day of St. Nicholas (c. 280 – 345 A.D.), one of the most popular saints for Advent and Christmas. St. Nicholas, or St. Nick as he is often called, is the inspiration behind Santa Claus and a big reason we exchange gifts at Christmastime.
St. Nicholas was born in Patara on the southern Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor in the modern-day country of Turkey. His parents were strongly Christian and led their boy to a deep faith in Jesus.
He had an uncle, also named Nicholas, who was the bishop in the nearby city of Myra.
Nicholas’ parents died when he was a young man and they left him a good-size inheritance. Not tempted by the money, Nicholas accepted the vocation to be a priest, was ordained by his uncle and, upon ordination, shocked everyone when he gave all his inheritance to the poor. Hence, St. Nick established a beautiful tradition of giving gifts.
Later, his uncle, Bishop Nicholas, died. The local bishops had endless meetings to fill the vacancy but could reach no agreement. One of their group had a dream that he should go to the church early the next morning and select the first person to arrive. Father Nicholas habitually arose long before sunrise to begin his day in prayer. When he arrived at church, everyone else in the village was sound asleep so he was chosen as the next bishop of Myra.
As bishop, St. Nicholas continued his tradition of giving. A famine broke out and his people were starving. Ships were anchored in the nearby harbor with cargos of grain, and he was able to convince the sailors to share some of the grain to feed the hungry. In 305 a persecution broke out against the Christians, and Nicholas as well as many church members were tossed into prison. During their confinement Nicholas brought them faith, hope, encouragement and good cheer.
The most famous legend involved an evil father and his three daughters. Their family was destitute. It was customary for the father of the bride to give a dowry, but he had no money, so the wretched man forced his daughters into prostitution to support him. St. Nicholas learned of their predicament, got a bag of gold and anonymously tossed it through their window late one night. The eldest daughter was freed and allowed to marry. Later he gave a second bag, again through the window, and finally — to escape detection — he climbed onto the roof and dropped the third bag down the chimney.
St. Nicholas died in 345 and his popularity spread far and wide, particularly to Germany. In German, Nicholas is “Nicklaus,” or “Klaus” for short, and Klaus evolved into Claus. Santa is Italian for holy or saint. Thus, the true meaning of Santa Claus is St. Nicholas, and St. Nick is the patron of Christmas giving because he was so generous throughout his life.
Many families observe St. Nicholas Day with special traditions. One involves children putting their shoes outside their bedroom doors on the night of Dec. 5 before they go to sleep. St. Nicholas comes during the night; in the morning the children find their shoes filled with small gifts and treats.