Saint Nicholas: The Saint behind Santa Claus

The most common image at Christmas is Santa Claus, the red suited American symbol of Christmas festivity and commercial activity. But in fact the figure of Santa Claus originated from Saint Nicholas, a fourth century saint, who has inspired great devotion over the centuries and invites us to bear the fruits of Holy Spirit in our lives and follow more closely the teaching of Jesus Christ to be generous and loving.


To many people the first person they think of when Christmas is mentioned is Santa Claus or Father Christmas, a legendary figure whose origins go back to St Nicholas, a revered and holy man who practiced all the virtues and was persecuted for his faith. As a Bishop he would not have wanted his name to be remembered in connection with Christmas and his Lord’s name to be forgotten, but Satan the liar and the father of lies (John 8:44) has blinded people to the truth. According to the world, Santa Claus is a mere gift giver coming during the Christmas season to amuse and make children happy.



The modern world doesn’t deny that Santa Claus derives from St Nicholas, the fourth century saint of whom, historically speaking, very little is actually known. There are many legends and stories told about St Nicholas and he has inspired a devoted following around the world. He is said to have been born in Patara in Lycia and was an only child of very devout and rich parents who died during an epidemic. Jesus told the rich young man, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) It is said that St Nicholas used all his wealth to help the poor, the needy, the sick and the suffering and he dedicated his life to serve God. He is believed to have been the Bishop of Myra, part of modern day Turkey and was well known for his love for children and for his generosity.


Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian there was a great persecution of Christians and St Nicholas suffered for his faith and was imprisoned. Like many Christians his faith was strengthened by being tested and he was purified by the persecution that he suffered for Christ, St Nicholas, on his release continued to preach and lead his people in the true faith. There are many legends about Nicholas’s life and works. The most famous one tells of a poor man with three daughters who could not afford the dowry to get his daughters married. A dowry is a sum of money paid to the bridegroom by the bride’s parents on the wedding day. One night Nicholas dropped a bag of gold down the chimney into the house. The bag is said to have fallen into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry. The oldest daughter was married with the money. This was repeated for the other daughters too. The father found out who had given them the money and the news of St Nicholas’ kindness spread among the people.


St Nicholas died in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. His tomb became a place of pilgrimage for many people who sought healing and lots of miracles were attributed to his intercession. The anniversary of his death, believed to be December 6th became a day of celebration, called St Nicholas Day. One story tells of the prayers of St Nicholas calming a storm and saving the lives of sailors whose boat was about to sink. So sailors claimed St Nicholas as their patron and St Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports. Devotion to St Nicholas continued to grow and by 900AD it was written that, “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies St Nicholas and churches are built in his honour.” In the late Middle Ages nearly 400 churches in England alone were dedicated to St Nicholas. He is also known as the saint of Bari, Italy, as some of his relics were taken there by sailors in the eleventh century.


With his great Christian example of generosity to all in need, St. Nicholas is a model for all compassionate and caring Christians who want to follow Jesus by their words and deeds. Although he was wealthy, when Jesus was born in St Nicholas’ heart, he remembered those words, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33) By giving away all that he owned to the poor and needy, he built up for himself treasure in heaven. We too can store up treasure for ourselves in heaven. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew25:40) A single coin given to the poor or any act of love shown in Jesus’ name will add to our heavenly treasure store. Let us start depositing in our heavenly account this Christmas.


Prayer: Heavenly Father, Give us the grace to follow in the footsteps of your beloved St Nicholas. Give us your Holy Spirit to celebrate Christmas in a holy way, particularly helping others who are in need. St Nicholas pray for us to obtain the gifts of the Holy Spirit rather than the earthly gifts, so that we can become more like Jesus in our words and in our deeds. Amen.