As is common, legends outweigh historically known facts. Here’s what we do know about St. Nicholas and why some of our Christmas traditions are tied to his name.
About St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas has always been one of the more popular saints of the Church. Nonetheless, the only certain fact we know of his life is that he was Bishop of Myra in ancient Lycia (now modern Dembre in Turkey), during the first half of the fourth century.
Tradition has it that he was born in Patara in Lycia, in about 270, and that he died on December 6, between 345 and 352. Justinian I (emperor 526–65) built a church in his honor during the early sixth century. In 1087, Italian soldiers stole the saint’s body from Myra and transported it by sea to Bari, and the saint’s cult then spread quickly throughout Italy and the rest of Europe.
Numerous legends arose about his liberality, the most famous being his secretly providing dowries for three poor girls. Thus, he is often depicted with three bags of gold. Because of this legend, St. Nicholas became, in Europe, the secret bringer of presents to children on the eve of his feast. In English-speaking countries, his name has become corrupted into Santa Claus, the bringer of gifts to children on Christmas Eve.1
Patron saint of sailors, children, and Russia
St. Nicholas is regarded as the patron saint of sailors, and churches under his dedication are often built so that they can be seen off the coast as landmarks. He is also the patron saint of children, bringing them gifts on December 6 (whence “Santa Claus,” an American corruption of “Sante Klaas,” the Dutch for “Saint Nicholas”). He is also the patron saint of Russia. His Feast day is December 6.2
St. Nicholas in art
Fra Angelico did a marvelous series of paintings based on his life: