By Anne Metz
Who was Saint Nicholas?
Saint Nicholas was a bishop in a town called Myra in ancient Greece. He was a generous man, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents to help those in need in his community. Most famously, St. Nick is known for saving three young women from slavery. Because their father could not afford to pay a dowry to see them married, he thought he would be forced to sell them into a life of slavery. When Saint Nicholas heard about this, he visited their home anonymously and threw bags of coins into the windows to help fund their dowries and keep the young women safe. Some even say on the third night he visited, the windows were locked so he threw the bag of coins into the chimney, where it landed, possibly in a stocking that was hung there…with care, most likely.
St. Nicholas died on December 6, 343, and was canonized in 1446.
Giving Gifts in Honor of St. Nicholas
Over time, Saint Nicolas’s popularity grew throughout the Catholic Church worldwide, beginning in Russia. In 1087, when St. Nicholas’s remains were moved to Bari, Italy, his popularity began to spread throughout Europe. In fact, in France, nuns began giving gifts to poor children on the eve of his feast day, December 6th. This most likely started the tradition of giving gifts in honor of St. Nicholas.
Moving away from Saints
At the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, there was a movement to decrease the importance of saints which led many people to stray from their devotion to saints, including St. Nicholas. The tradition of giving gifts on his feast day waned, though at about the same time, the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas began. The Dutch, however, still revered St. Nick, or Sinterklaas as they called him, and continued to celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas by dressing like him in his red chasuble, bishop’s miter, and staff to give gifts.
Sinterklaas comes to America
In the early 1600s, the Dutch brought their culture and their love of St. Nicholas to America when they settled in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. American author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving wrote the book, Knickerbockers History of New York, where he referenced Saint Nicholas driving a horse-drawn wagon filled with presents and sending them down people’s chimneys.
From St. Nick to Santa Claus
In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for his children. If you’re familiar with the poem you know that St. Nicholas is portrayed as traveling through the air in a sled pulled by reindeer and dropping into chimneys in his fur suit to deliver toys on December 24th.
This poem is most likely where the story of St. Nicholas, a real-life Catholic bishop and saint, diverged into the legend of Santa Claus. Over time, authors and even advertisers like Coca-Cola, continued to expand on their own versions and origin stories of Santa Claus, forming him into the man we see in popular culture today.
So, to answer the question, “Is Saint Nicholas Santa Claus?” I think the answer might be: He used to be.
If you want to celebrate the real Saint Nicholas this year, remember him on his feast day, December 6th. Have your children put their shoes outside of their bedroom door on the eve of St. Nick’s feast day and fill them with treats, like chocolate coins and candy canes to represent his bishop’s staff.
You can also act like St. Nicholas to honor him on his feast day, by giving gifts anonymously to those in need. And finally, read your children the story of the very real Saint Nicholas.
Anne Metz works part-time as a freelance writer and spends the other part working for Growing Catholics, whose mission is to bring scripture to all, especially young people.