St. Nicholas was the bishop of the Christian Church in the Asia Minor city of Myra (now Demre, Turkey) in the fourth century AD. He is beloved throughout the Christian East for his kindness and help, both during his life and afterward. He is called “Wonderworker” for the miracles and acts of kindndess and charity which he performed. Because of this and of the many legends of his works, St. Nicholas is regarded as the special patron of children.
It was through popular telling and retelling of Saint Nicholas’ legendary generous deeds that today’s Santa Claus is a mish-mash which incorporates many traditions: Christian and Pagan, Old Catholic, Scandinavian, Dutch, German and English. The resulting legendary figure is very convenient for parents and retailers as the Giftmas Master of Ceremonies.
The most famous story told about St. Nicholas has to do with three young sisters who were very poor. Their parents were so poor that they did not have enough money for the daughters to get married. Some more PG-13 tellings of this story had the girls on the verge of being prostituted by the father. Regardless, Nicholas heard about this family and wanted to help them, but he did not want anyone to know that he was the one who was helping them. In one versionof the story, he climbed up on their roof three nights in a row and threw gold coins down their chimney so that they would land in the girls’ stockings, which had been hung by the fire to dry. After two of his daughters had been able to marry because of the money mysteriously appearing in their stockings. That is how we have the story and the tradition of stocking full of gifts today. It later turned out to be more convenient for retailers and tiny tots with their eyes all aglow to let those stocking presents overflow and spill out under the Christmas Tree.
After the Protestant Reformation in Northern Germany, St. Nicholas was replaced for a while by the Krist Kindl, the Christ Child. So you know sometimes hear of Santa referred to as Kris Kringle. Part of the legend of Santa Claus is said to be based on the Germanic god Thor who rode on a chariot drawn by goats named Cracker and Cruncher. Not exactly a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, but you can see the lineage emerging.
The most important single source for our modern day version of Santa Claus comes from the Christmas poem A Visit From St. Nicholasby Clement C. Moore. Written for his children in 1823, the family poem was later published for the general public and included what became the now famous picture of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast.
His legend is mostly a Giftmas thing today, but I find St. Nicholas — a leader of the Church who did good works, set a good example, and truly, personally cared for the poor — a very relevant and much needed example for all of us Catholics today.