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Who Was Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus)?

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Santa Claus St. Nicholas Stockbyte / Getty Images

Name:

Saint Nicholas, who inspired the character of Santa Claus

Lifetime:

270 – 343 in ancient Greece (now part of Turkey)

Feast Day:

December 6th

Patron Saint Of:

Christmas, children, students, poor people, merchants, pawnbrokers, bankers, travelers, sailors, judges, prisoners, Greece, Russia, Sicily, and many different cities and churches

Famous Miracles:

Saint Nicholas is credited with so many different miracles that his name in Russian translates into English as “Saint Nicholas the Miracle Creator.” Here are three of the most famous among the many miracles attributed to Nicholas:

When Nicholas was serving as Bishop of Myra, people in the area were suffering from hunger because of a severe famine. Once, when a ship full of wheat arrived in the local harbor, Nicholas convinced the sailors who were unloading it for the Byzantine emperor to give part of it to him to use to feed hungry people, promising that if they gave some of the wheat, they wouldn’t get in trouble with the emperor because God would multiply the wheat to make up for the portion they shared with people in need. The sailors gave enough wheat to feed hungry people in Myra for two years, with enough left over to sow more. But when they weighed the amount of wheat that was left over for the emperor, they found that it was just as much wheat as they had originally brought with them to the harbor.

Another miracle attributed to Nicholas involved him rescuing three falsely imprisoned men from being wrongly executed. All three of the men were officers of the Roman Empire who had been sentenced to die based on false charges from a prefect named Ablavius who was jealous of them and their work. In prison, the soldiers prayed for God to use Nicholas (who was serving as Bishop of Myra at the time and was known for his justice) to somehow save them from an unjust execution. Then that night, Nicholas appeared in a dream to both Ablavius and the Roman emperor Constantine, telling them that they needed to release the three soldiers or experience God’s wrath if they didn’t do so. So Constantine summoned Ablavius the next day, and they discussed how they both had the same dream the previous night. Then they summoned the three prisoners and questioned them. Constantine freed the men after learning that they had prayed to God to use Nicholas to help them. Then Constantine sent the rescued men to visit Nicholas, with a letter he wrote asking Nicholas not to threaten him anymore but instead to pray for peace in the world.

Yet another miracle shows Nicholas helping a child. Long after Nicholas died, a mother’s prayers for him to help her kidnapped son miraculously led to his safe return home. The child, named Basilios, had been taken from his town by a band of pirates ransacking the area. Basilios was sold into slavery and worked for an Arab emir for a year. Both of his parents fervently prayed for his safety throughout that time. Then, on Saint Nicholas’ feast day, Basilios’ mother prayed for Nicholas to intervene to help her son. Basilios reported that Saint Nicholas appeared to him in a vision, blessed him, and the next thing Basilios knew he was home with his parents, having been miraculously transported there.

Biography:

Nicholas was born in the ancient Greek colony of Patara in 270 AD, as the only child of devout Christian parents who were very wealthy and generously gave to the poor. His parents died in an epidemic when Nicholas was still a boy, leaving his a large inheritance that he used over the years to help people in need.

After Nicholas’ parents died, his uncle (who was also named Nicholas and served as the bishop of Patara) raised him. Nicholas sensed God calling him to become a priest, and he did so while still a young man. Religious persecution in the Roman Empire led to many Christians being imprisoned for their beliefs, and Nicholas became one of them. But when the persecution ended, Nicholas and many other Christians were freed.

Nicholas was appointed bishop of Myra and developed a reputation as a man who loved Jesus Christ wholeheartedly. He often prayed for people in need (such as travelers), gave generously to help the poor, worked tirelessly for justice (such as by coming to the defense of people who had been wrongly accused of crimes), and worked to spread the Gospel message to pagan people.

Nicholas died in 343 AD, and his body was buried in the cathedral in Myra. Then a clear, sweet-smelling liquid formed in his grave, apparently coming out of his bones. Because Nicholas’ bones have continued to excrete the liquid every year since his death until now, the liquid is called manna after the sweet-tasting daily provision that God gave the Hebrew people to sustain them in the desert, as described in both the Torah and the Bible. While the church has allowed scientists to examine the bones to verify that they are still secreting the liquid, the chemical composition of the liquid has never been analyzed.

Inspiring the Creation of Santa Claus

Nicholas died centuries before the Catholic Church began to officially canonize people as saints, but the stories that circulated about his devout life and the miracles he performed led him to be considered a saint by the Middle Ages, when many churches and towns were named in his honor. The Catholic Church designated December 6th as Saint Nicholas’ official feast day.

On the feast of Saint Nicholas, families began a tradition of giving gifts to each other to celebrate how Nicholas was known for giving gifts to people -- especially children. That tradition then carried over to Christmas on December 25th. Saint Nicholas became a major part of Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands, and his name in Dutch ("Sinter Klaas") evolved into "Santa Claus" in English. Eventually, the character of Santa Claus grew out of those traditions and came to represent generosity to children at Christmas.

One famous story about Nicholas’ compassion and generosity in action led to the worldwide Christmas custom of children hanging stockings on a fireplace or setting out shoes, to be filled with gifts from Santa Claus -- the character who was inspired by Nicholas’ life. During Nicholas’ lifetime, a local man with three daughters that Nicholas knew was too poor to afford to pay the dowry necessary to arrange each of their marriages. If the daughters remained unmarried, they would likely have to become slaves or prostitutes, because no other type of employment was generally available in that society at that time for single women. So Nicholas dropped three bags full of gold into the man’s house through one of his windows at night, which landed in stockings and shoes that the family had left out to dry by a fireplace. The man was able to sell the gold for enough money to fund good dowries for his daughters to get married. Since Nicholas’ gift had landed inside stockings and shoes, children began leaving out stockings and shoes to receive gifts from Santa Claus.

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