Saint Nicholas of Myra (AD 270—343) was a Christian church leader in Asia Minor who died in the middle of the 4th century. Almost everything known about Nicholas comes from secondary sources and legends. The few consistent claims made about Nicholas include his notable generosity and humility. These traits influenced the development of legends about him, ultimately inspiring the modern-day character known as Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
Nicholas seems to have become a priest at an early age. His parents were likely wealthy; when they died, Nicholas used his inheritance to support the poor. Among his common practices was slipping coins into the shoes of needy people when they left them out. Nicolas might have participated in the Council of Nicea. However, historians disagree over lists of attendees, some of which don’t include his name. Nicholas served as the Bishop of Myra. This city was where Paul changed ships during one of his trips to Rome as a prisoner (Acts 27:1–6).
The most famous legend about Nicholas foreshadows modern traditions about Santa Claus. According to the story, Nicholas heard about a man who had become destitute. The man was now unable to provide his three daughters with a dowry. Because of this, they had no hope of marriage and were considering prostitution to survive. Nicholas—trying to avoid any publicity for his help—dropped money down the family’s chimney on three separate occasions, relieving the young women’s desperation. Other versions of the story have him distributing the money through a window or the father waiting to catch Nicholas in the act to express gratitude.
Artistic depictions of Saint Nicholas were extremely common in the centuries after his death. Some historians believe he is the second-most depicted Catholic saint, after Mary. Of course, any single image simplifies the event it depicts. That lack of context led to misinterpretations. For example, one of Nicholas’s supposed miracles was resurrecting three children. In that story, the youths had been murdered and left in a barrel of brine by an evil butcher. Some scholars attribute the origin of this legend to icons that featured Nicolas and three purses, which people mistook for the heads of children.
Images and icons based on those secondary legends themselves might have led to other misconceptions. For example, the inclusion of images of barrels—based on the butcher miracle—led people to associate Nicholas with sailors or brewers. Representations with gold coins, mistaken as fruits, led people to associate him with oranges. Officially or unofficially, this has made Nicholas the patron saint of a great many categories.
Other disputed stories about Nicholas include his striking an Arian—or possibly Arius himself—at the Council of Nicea. The uncharacteristic violence was a reaction to heresy. Supposedly, Nicholas was removed from his clergy position as a result of this aggression. According to Catholic legends, he was freed from prison by a visit from Mary and Jesus and given back his church.
Nicholas’s death, on December 6, 343, quickly became associated with a celebratory feast. For many hundreds of years, associated traditions involved gift-giving. In Dutch-speaking areas of Europe, the legend of Sinterklaas included children leaving out their shoes overnight. The shoes would be filled with candy and small gifts by a red-clad, white-bearded, priestly man—but only if the children had been well-behaved. These traditions combined celebrations about Nicholas of Myra with pre-Christian traditions such as Yule, which included a white-bearded, cloaked Odin distributing gifts.
Immigrants to the United States brought Sinterklaas traditions with them. These were relatively obscure until the early 19th century. Washington Irving, a popular American writer, included references to St. Nicholas in his work. In 1823, the character was depicted in Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known by its first line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” By the 1850s, that version of Santa Claus began to reach Europe, where it blended with similar traditions about Father Christmas. Thomas Nast drew an illustration for the famous poem in 1881, further popularizing many of Santa’s physical features.
An advertising campaign in the 1930s depicted the version of Santa Claus that has since become standard: a fat, happy, red-nosed, white-bearded man in a red outfit with white fur trim.
Modern legends about Santa Claus have their own origins, but many ultimately trace back to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Controversy over those traditions is nothing new. Early Protestant leaders discouraged celebration of any saint, including Nicholas. Atheist regimes such as in early-20th century Russia dismissed anything connected to religion. Some modern Christians—even entire denominations—object to commercializing Christmas and emphasizing Santa to a more prominent place than Jesus.
Of course, those concerns have little to do with who Nicholas of Myra really was or what he did. As far as parents choose to teach their children anything about Santa, the basic facts about Nicholas are good to mention. According to the Bible, all born-again believers are “saints.” In that way, “Saint” Nicholas of Myra shouldn’t be held to a different standard than any other Christian. Nor should the positive things he did be ignored.