Dec. 6 is the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra, known also as Santa Claus.
He also is the patron saints of Russia and several groups: travelers, brides, parish clerks, scholars, pawnbrokers and little boys. Sailors invoke his name to calm storms and fires.
His story is often confused with another St. Nicholas, Nicholas of Sion, who died about 200 years later.
Little is known about the man who would become known as a jolly old elf.
- He was born in Patara, in what is now Turkey, to wealthy parents who raised him Christian.
- While still a young man, he became Bishop of Myra and was known for his generosity.
- In 325, he attended the Council of Nicea, the first ecumenical council, which tried to create some uniformity among Christianity.
One of the earliest known stories about St. Nicholas of Myra says Nicholas’ parents died when he was 18, leaving him with great wealth. He sought ways to use the money to help others.
A neighbor fell onto rough times and felt he would have to sell his daughters into prostitution.
Nicholas placed gold coins into a purse and during the night, threw the bag into the man’s home. It was enough to provide a dowry for the oldest daughter.
Nicholas did the same thing for each of the daughters, each time in secret, but the father sat up for many nights the last time to meet his daughters’ benefactor.
Nicholas’ name and stories were brought to the New World early in the European journey here. On Dec. 6, 1492, Christopher Columbus named a port in Haiti for the man.
Jacksonville, Florida, was originally a Spanish settlement named St. Nicholas Ferry.
However, the early colonists were Protestants who were upset by some Catholic practices and had moved away from marking Christmas as a holy time. So the Nicholas story didn’t revive until after the American Revolution, when New Yorkers began to celebrate their Dutch roots, which included traditions about St. Nicholas. From this, Washington Irving published a fictional piece about a jolly St. Nicholas in the early 1800s, which led to more stories about Nicholas.
The 1800s was also a time of change.
Those changes led to the observance of time off with family and to gift giving.
It saw a rise in Santa stories and the movement of Santa Claus to Christmas Eve rather than Nicholas’ day on Dec. 6.
“A Visit From St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas,” appeared in 1823, giving us more of the jolly elf with a sleigh.
During the Civil War, Santa was illustrated in Harper’s Weekly using these American stories.
And in the 1920s and 1930s, Santa Claus emerged in illustrations and advertisements as the large red-clothed, white-bearded man we know today.
For a lot more information about the saint and his journey to today’s character, visit stnicholascenter.org.
The site offers historical information, a look at St. Nicholas traditions from around the world and how people can make their own celebration. A For Kids tab offers lots of activities and coloring sheets for both online and hardcopy use. And if you are wanting to decorate with a more saintly look than the fat red man, the site has a shop with lots of St. Nicholas items.