Saint Nicholas

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicholas of Myra was born during the 3rd century A.D. in Patara, Lycia, an ancient city that is now part of present-day Damre, Turkey. At a young age, Nicholas became an orphan when his parents died of an epidemic. Soon, he moved in with his uncle, Nicholas, a bishop living in Patara, who raised him and taught him how to read. During his youth, he became very religious in such a way that he engaged in a rigorous observance of fasting twice a week. Eventually, he was ordained a priest. Nicholas was a very generous man, after inheriting his parents’ wealth, he was known for giving much of it to the sick and poor.

There are many stories surrounding the legend of Saint Nicholas. The most famous story by far tells how Nicholas had saved a poor man from having to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he was too poor to pay their dowries. There are four different endings associated with this story. One account tells how Nicholas secretly slipped a bag of gold into the man’s house one night. Another account tells how he slipped a bag of money into his house for three nights in a row. The third account tells how he had repeated this kind gesture of giving, nightly, for three years in a row. The final account tells how one night Nicholas dropped the bag of gold into the chimney where it happened to land into one of the daughters’ stockings which was hanging and drying over the fireplace. All the while, the poor man was always in wait to meet his generous donor. Other stories associated with his legend tell how Nicholas had saved three innocent men from imprisonment and death while other stories credit him for helping children and sailors.

Indeed, many different accounts tell the story of Saint Nicholas’s giving nature, but it was the Dutch customs that turned this historical man into the iconic Sinter Klaus of Christian folklore today. 

During the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation caused the formation of many Christian factions. These new Protestant groups stopped the practice of worshipping saints in many parts of Europe, but Holland continued to honor Saint Nicholas. As December 6th was the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the Dutch prepared to celebrate this day through a common cultural practice. Dutch children would place their shoes outside on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, only to find presents left in them the next morning. When many of the Dutch began to emigrate to the United States, the children continued to practice this tradition in the New World, which effectively influenced American culture in the 1700’s and on.

Eventually, Saint Nicholas became better known as Santa Claus for his gift-giving and generous ways. The current representation of Santa Claus originated from a 19th century poem about a jolly old man who goes down chimneys to leave presents and rides a sleigh with reindeer and a drawing of a heavy-set man dressed in a red suit and hat.

You can learn more about Saint Nicholas by visiting the New York State Library and looking into these titles:

-Stories of Saint Nicholas.
Paulding, James Kirke. 1995.

-Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: biography of a lengend.
Jones, Charles Williams. 1978.

-A visit from Saint Nicholas.
Moore, Clement Clarke. 1971.

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