History of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas, also called Nicholas of Bari, Nicholas of Myra, and Santa Claus, flourished in the 4th century in Asia Minor near the modern Turkish city of Finike. One of the most popular minor saints commemorated in the Eastern and Western churches, his feast day is December 6th. He is now traditionally associated with the festival of Christmas.

St. Nicholas was born in Patara around A.D. 280 in Asia Minor and became bishop of Myra, now Demre, in Turkey. (Myra is a three hour bus ride across the mountains from Patara.)

The only definite historical evidence of his life is in the records of the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was responsible for creating the Nicene Creed, a famous statement of doctrine. He was definitely in attendance, although it's not known what role he may have played in the meetings and deliberations.

Nicholas probably suffered in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian, which lasted until about 311, at which time he would have been around 31-years-old. The new emperor, Constantine, tolerated and then encouraged and finally established Christianity as the state religion. Nicholas died about 343.

Nicholas' existence is not attested by any historical document, so nothing certain is known of his life except that he was probably bishop of Myra in the 4th century. According to tradition, he was born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara, and, when young, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt. He became bishop of Myra soon after returning to Lycia. He was imprisoned during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians but was released under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great and attended the first Council of Nicaea in 325. After his death he was buried in his church at Myra, and by the 6th century his shrine there had become well known. In 1087 Italian sailors or merchants stole his alleged remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy; this removal greatly increased the saint's popularity in Europe and Bari became one of the most crowded of all pilgrimage centers. Nicholas' relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola in Bari.

Nicholas' reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. He was reputed to have given marriage dowries of gold to 3 girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into lives of prostitution, and he restored to life 3 children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a brine tub. In the Middle Ages, devotion to Nicholas extended to all parts of Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece; of charitable fraternities and guilds; of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers; and of such cities as Fribourg, Switzerland, and Moscow. Thousands of European churches were dedicated to him, one as early as the 6th century, built by the Roman emperor Justinian I, at Constantinople (now Istanbul). Nicholas' miracles were a favorite subject for medieval artists and liturgical plays, and his traditional feast day was the occasion for the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop, a widespread European custom in which a boy was elected bishop and reigned until Holy Innocents' Day (December 28).

After the Reformation, Nicholas' cult disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country's English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The resulting image of Santa Claus in the U.S. crystallized in the 19th century, and he has ever since remained the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas. Under various guises Saint Nicholas was transformed into a similar benevolent, gift-giving figure in The Netherlands, Belgium, and other northern European countries. In the United Kingdom Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas.

St. Nicholas Day     Christmas Index