Over the next 18 days, children around the world will be counting down the days, beside themselves with excitement for the annual visit of an elderly gentleman who will bring them gifts – if they’ve been good. We call him Father Christmas or Santa Claus – and this latter name shows the origins of the legend, as it is widely thought to be a corruption of the name “Saint Nicholas”.
Saint Nicholas has his feast day today, 6th December, and it is actually a public holiday in many countries, a day for children to get gifts from the Saint, to play games, have parties, and do many of the things we also associate with Christmas. As well as being a traditional festival, it is seen as a way of having the commercial side of the festive season, while keeping Christmas for its true religious purpose.
So who was Saint Nicholas? Historically, he was a 4th Century Bishop in modern-day Turkey. He was a respected theologian and holy man in his time, and an important player in the development of church hierarchy and formal Christian belief.
However, it was for the legends and miracles associated with him that he became best known. His most famous characteristic was generosity, and he became known for acts of charity towards the poor in his region. He was a modest man and made his donations in secret, leaving money, food and other gifts for those who needed them. As his fame grew, people would leave shoes outside their door for him to slip a few coins into during the night.
Two particular stories helped cement his reputation and fame. The first concerns his gift of money to help the three daughters of a poor but devout man, saving them from the need to become prostitutes to make ends meet. He is said to have thrown the money through an open window and it landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. The second is a miracle, in which Saint Nicholas discovered that a butcher had killed three children to sell as meat during a famine and resurrected the children by his prayers.
His life and the stories told about him led to Nicholas being venerated as a Saint, celebrated particularly for generosity to the less fortunate and protection of children. He is the patron saint of children, merchants, sailors and even thieves.
It is incredible to realise how many of our modern Santa Claus traditions are directly linked to this early 4th Century Turkish bishop. Remember him when you hang up your Christmas stocking this year!
Many thanks to Ian of IAB Tours for this post.