St. Nicholas was born during the fourth century in Patara (Asia Minor), a village in Turkey. He later moved to Myra. His wealthy parents died when he was still young, and he inherited their fortune. Nicholas was raised by his uncle, the bishop of Patara. His uncle mentored him and later ordained him a priest. Soon after, Nicholas became a bishop.

He was always known to have a giving heart. One of the stories associated with Nicholas’ spirit of giving was when he learned of a poor nobleman who had three unmarried daughters who were in danger of being sold into slavery because their father didn’t have money for their dowries. In those days, a woman without a dowry had few options of survival. 

The young bishop acted immediately: One evening, in the middle of the night, he slipped a sack of gold through the window into the nobleman’s house. Later, two other sacks arrived the same way. Once the father discovered it was Nicholas’ doing, he approached the bishop to express his thanks. The humble bishop replied, “No, all thanks go to God, not me.” The compassionate bishop believed what Christ said, “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” He further believed that when we give we should do so in Christ’s name and not in our own. It was discovered that the kindly bishop was known to give whenever he could to those in need in his community. 

During the persecution of Christians by Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned, along with thousands of other Christians. He was imprisoned for his faith until Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion. He participated in the first ecumenical council of the early Christian Church and produced the first uniform Christian doctrine, the Nicene Creed.

He died on Dec. 6, his feast day in the Church. It’s still the main day for gift-giving in much of Europe.

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, making St. Nicholas the patron saint of both the city and the society. In 1809, Washington Irving referenced St. Nicholas in one of his works. This jolly image received a huge boost in 1822 from a poem known originally as A Visit From St. Nicholas — now better known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. The poem generally has been attributed to Clement Clark Moore, a professor at New York’s Episcopal General Theological Seminary. 

The image of Santa Claus with a red suit, with white cuffs and collar and black leather belt, became the popular image in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of the “Merry Old Santa Claus” images created by political cartoonist Thomas Nast. He created a series of drawings in Harper’s Weekly motivated by the descriptions found in Irving’s work. These drawings identified a rotund Santa, with a long, flowing beard, fur garments and a clay pipe. This work had a major influence in creating the “American Santa Claus,” whose true backstory is a simple Christian bishop who loved God and loved people. 

St. Nicholas, pray for us!

Cathy Mendenhall-Baugh writes from Portland, Oregon.