The Real Saint Nicholas
The origins of Santa Claus come from the real life story Saint Nicholas, while the rest has been formed by Christmas folklore, story and tradition.
The popular depiction of Santa Claus appears to have evolved from European, particularly Dutch and German influence, which reached the United States during the first quarter of the 19th century. To the Dutch he was known as “Sinterklaas.” Clement Clark Moore’s famous 1823 poem “The Night Before Christmas” established Santa as “a right jolly old elf” but does not specify that his suit was red, only that Saint Nick was “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot.” Moore’s poem names the eight reindeer pulling Santa’s sled, except Rudolph, whose inception began with a department store advertising jingle in 1939, which was made into a song ten years later. Not until 1869 did an artist’s depiction render Santa Claus in red (St. Nicholas Center).
The real Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop of Myra, now the city of Demre in southern Turkey. At the time the area was Greek, but under control of the Roman Empire. The most common legend of Saint Nicholas describes the plight of a poor man who was ready to force his three daughters into prostitution because he could not afford to pay a dowry to any potential husbands. Saint Nicholas, passing by the man’s house, overheard his dilemma. The bishop returned three times, each time tossing a gold coin through an open window and into one of the socks hanging by the fireplace to dry. Thus began the Christmas tradition of hanging large stockings by the chimney (ibid.).
Numerous stories tell of Nicholas’ generosity, especially to the poor, and he is also revered as a protector and benefactor of children. He is the patron saint of many cities and many different groups of people, especially travelers, sailors and even prisoners. The latter association stems from that fact that he himself endured persecution and imprisonment under the Roman emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD), and because Saint Nicholas is credited on several occasions with saving men wrongly incarcerated or condemned to death.
Another tale of Saint Nicholas’ intervention on behalf of children tells of three young scholars who were robbed and murdered by a wicked innkeeper, who then unceremoniously stuffed the bodies into a big wooden tub. Learning of this, Saint Nicholas confronted the killer, then prayed for and received the resurrection of the victims. Other sources, however, dismiss this tale as utter nonsense (Catholic Online).
Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD, and was interred at Myra, but in 1087 his remains were stolen by sailors and taken to the Italian city of Bari, where a church was erected over them. Both churches still stand today, attracting countless pilgrims.