Like Santa Claus, St. Nicholas inspires generosity and joy at Christmas. Although he’s often eclipsed in America by his more commercial red-suited “descendant,” St. Nicholas also represents holiness of life, patience through suffering and courage to defend the faith.
Much of what’s known about this fourth-century bishop is legend, but his life continues to inspire Christians everywhere, who honor his virtue and celebrate his Dec. 6 feast day with customs from many cultures and follow his example of giving at Christmas.
It is believed that Nicholas was born in about the year 280 of wealthy Christian parents in Patara (now Demre, Turkey). He received an inheritance from them, which he gave to the needy.
In one famous story, Nicholas secretly delivered three bags of gold to a destitute father’s home so he could give his daughters dowries — the beginning of our Santa Claus tradition. Despite his attempts at secrecy, Nicholas, who had become a priest, was well known and was elected bishop of Myra.
During the persecution of Diocletian, some accounts say Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured. It is believed that he participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325 and strongly denounced the Arian heresy, which asserted that Jesus is not truly divine but a created being.
There is evidence that Nicholas intervened, possibly miraculously, to save three military officers from execution. He also is a patron of sailors. Nicholas died around 343 and was buried in Myra. In 1087, merchants from Bari, Italy, took Nicholas’ relics to their city, where they are still located.
Between the ninth and 13th centuries, Nicholas was not only well known, but was the most venerated saint of the Christian Church, according to Father Gerardo Cioffari, director of the Saint Nicholas Studies Center in Bari.
The saint is especially venerated by the Orthodox. In the East and West, more churches are dedicated to Nicholas than anyone else except the Blessed Virgin, said Father Nicholas Ayo, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and author of Saint Nicholas in America: Christmas Holy Day and Holiday.
Universally, Nicholas’ legends have resonated with ordinary Christians, offering them hope, Father Ayo said.
“The legends of the saints don’t tell you necessarily what happened,” Father Ayo said. “They tell you what people want from their parents, from their bishop, from their Church, from their world, from their government. They tell you what’s in the human heart, what people want and what people think is good.”
Whether or not legends about St. Nicholas are true, many of them offer uplifting themes. “He teaches the correct relationship among men, the right way of using [wealth], and especially the necessity of generosity towards the poor,” Father Cioffari said.
Nicholas is also considered a patron of commerce, he said. “Because he substituted the Magi kings as gifts-bringer, it is normal for him to be the ‘saint of the gifts’ and therefore of commercial activity,” Father Cioffari said. “The question is not commerce, but the use of wealth.”
Commercialization is one thing Americans tend to associate more with Santa Claus than St. Nicholas. The saint came to the New World as the Dutch Sinterklaas, and in the early 1800s, writer Washington Irving included Nicholas in his Dutch-influenced mock history of New York. More than a decade later, Clement Clarke Moore published his famous poem, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (known popularly as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), upon which much Santa Claus lore is based.
Along with St. Nicholas legends, many countries through the ages have developed customs for his feast day (or throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons), which brings virtue, holiness and a little fun to Advent before the full onset of Christmas.
A website that offers comprehensive information on St. Nicholas, along with activities, crafts, recipes and games, is StNicholasCenter.org. Ideas for honoring St. Nicholas’ feast day include:
The European tradition of leaving shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill is said to have originated with his anonymous gifts of gold to the three future brides. Place carrots or straw in shoes for St. Nicholas’ horse too.
Offer family and friends candy canes, which represent Bishop Nicholas’ crozier.
Like the Dutch, give simple gifts with riddles and/or wrapped in fun ways, such as small gifts nested inside multiple boxes and wrappings.
In memory of St. Nicholas and his generosity to the poor, plant seeds and place a white votive candle in the center of the “garden.” If planted in early Advent, the plants should sprout by Christmas. On Christmas Eve, light the candle to symbolize Christ coming into the world.
Jennifer Gregory Miller, who writes the Family in Feast and Feria blog, also offers information about the saint, as well as recipes and ideas for celebrating his feast day. Because St. Nicholas did hidden good works, she encourages children to imitate him by doing a secret good deed.
Miller also suggests creating a St. Nicholas puppet theater with simple puppets. And she gives a recipe for Speculaas, Dutch St. Nicholas’ Day cookies, which are often placed in shoes as a gift.
St. Nicholas is about giving, just as God gave us his Son, Father Ayo said. He is a model for an ideal world in which our life is a gift from God.
“Just as Jesus is a gift of God’s Son to us, so our life is a gift from the Father who still is watching over us, still is gifting us,” he said. “St. Nicholas is simply a human dramatization of the divine story, but in a minor key compared to the doctrinal solemnity that you could put together in the theology of the Incarnation.”
Or, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted in a homily in the 1200s on St. Nicholas’ Day, “The hand of the Lord, that is to say his power, helped blessed Nicholas by working miracles through him; hence in Acts (4:30): ‘You will stretch out your hand [to heal], and signs and wonders are performed in the name of your Son.’ Blessed Nicholas was filled with the power to work miracles. Who is there that has ever sought the glory of the world and obtained it as did blessed Nicholas, who was but a poor bishop in Greece? The Lord adorned him with miracles because he showed the greatest mercy. Know that the Lord has made his holy one wonderful (Psalm 4:4). It was mercy that made blessed Nicholas an extraordinary man, and the Lord Jesus Christ strengthened him even unto everlasting life. May he lead us there, who lives [and reigns] with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.