St. Nicholas of Myra (Lycia), who died in the fourth century, is irrevocably associated with Christmas. Scholars trace this to a story involving Nicholas and three penniless maidens who, lacking dowries, were destined for a life of prostitution.
On three separate occasions, Nicholas tossed bags of gold into their home — some say via the chimney — and these young women were able to marry.
Although Nicholas is credited with other good deeds, including saving men condemned to death by the Emperor Constantine, Nicholas’s memory endures for most people as the prototype of Santa Claus. In fact, the name, “Santa Claus,” is a corruption of Sinterklaas (Sint Klass), a Dutch form of St. Nicholas.
Nevertheless, Santa Claus is based, not on the Christian saint, but on the Germanic god Odin the All-father who, throughout time, has been linked both with winter and with the Yule log. It’s said he rides a white horse through the skies, accompanied by a host of elves and spirits. If anyone chances to see Odin at these times, and if he then shows reverence toward the god, Odin rewards him with gifts of every kind.
Some versions of this folktale say Thor, not Odin, travels the winter skies but, it is said, Thor drives a chariot pulled by goats. Whichever god it is, tradition took the old legend and Christianized it, making Nicholas the sky-rider who carries gifts.
In ancient times in Germany and Holland, children began to leave their shoes near the fireplace for Odin to fill with gifts. First, though, they packed the shoes with hay and carrots for the god’s horse. In later years, those snacks were meant for St. Nicholas’s white horse.
As a result of the saint’s kindness to the dowry-lacking women, he became the patron of maidens everywhere. For example, for hundreds of years, French women have prayed to Nicholas to help them find husbands. Nicholas is also renowned for his ability to calm angry seas and save endangered mariners. Thus, he is also the patron of sailors. A charming Ukrainian folktale tells us that it snows when St. Nicholas shakes his white beard.
Still, we know little that can be proven about St. Nicholas — not even his birthplace which is thought to have been Patara, Lycia, in Asia Minor (Turkey). We do know that as Bishop of Myra, he was imprisoned by Emperor Diocletian during Roman persecution of Christians, and that he died at Myra, probably about AD 350.
Everything else credited to him — the dowerless maidens, the protection of storm-beset sailors, the destruction of pagan temples, the rescue of Christian prisoners — is possibly only legend. The traditional legends of St. Nicholas were collected by Metaphrastes and preserved in Greek in the 10th century, and his relics are preserved at the Church of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy.
He is the patron saint of the countries and territories of Greece, Cicily, Apulia, Lorraine and Russia. His feast day is celebrated on December 6. It’s said he’s been portrayed by artists more often than any other saint except Mary. And, certainly, he’s the only saint to be featured in cartoons and ads.