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Saint Nicholas: Separating Fact from Fiction

Who is Father Christmas? Was there a real man behind the jolly winter figure? Of course there was, and you have probably heard snippets of information about him. So much of what we think we know is wrapped up in the modern cult figure of Father Christmas / Santa Claus. But what do we really know about the real Saint Nicholas?

Saint Nicholas The Man

According to fragmentary sources, the real Saint Nicholas was born in AD270 Lycia, which was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire (now in modern Turkey). He came from a wealthy Christian family and expected to work in a prominent role. But tragedy would strike first. His parents died of a fatal sickness and he passed into the care of his uncle, also called Nicholas, and a Bishop of Patara. It was here that he become a religious figure, his uncle making him the equivalent of a modern priest.

saint nicholasWe know that he became Bishop of Myra and was present at the pivotal Council of Nicaea. His path would take him down the Orthodox Christian route in life and today he is one of the most important saints in the eastern calendar, particularly in Greece and Russia.

Nicholas is known by several names, one of which is Nikolaos the Wonderworker. This name he was given for his charitable work which included secret gift giving. He sometimes gave money but more often food and necessary items. It is this rather than his religious life that would make him into the figure we today know as Father Christmas or Santa Claus.

Patron Saint Of…

You would be forgiven for thinking that secret gift giving would be the only thing for which Saint Nicholas was famous. Charity is an important concept in many Christian churches, but Nicholas is an important figure to other groups of people too. These include but are not limited to: merchants and sailors, brewers, students, pawnbrokers, children and repentant thieves, and finally archers. Where he is venerated as such depends on where you are in the world.

He is less important in what we call the “Western Church” meaning Catholic and Protestant, anything that evolved from the religious traditions of Western Europe. He is more important and venerated more in the Orthodox East such as Russian and Greek Orthodox traditions, also including the Coptic Church which includes Egypt and parts of northeast Africa.

His patronage of children is of particular note. Famous for giving out gifts in life, numerous miracles have been ascribed to him where children have been swept out to sea, fallen in a well or experienced other life-threatening danger, and later claimed the only reason they survived was the intervention of Saint Nicholas.

How Saint Nicholas Became Father Christmas

In his most famous story, and perhaps one that led to the Father Christmas concept, tells of Saint Nicholas coming into contact with a poor man who had three daughters. The family were so poor that they didn’t have enough money for a dowry for any of the girls, let alone all three. He knew the family would not accept charity and Nicholas himself was too modest to make a public show of charity. Instead, he went to an open window one night and tossed in three purses of gold – each the value of a dowry for the daughters.

The narrative is confused, but either he threw all of the bags on the same night, on three consecutive nights, or several years apart on the eve of each daughter’s marriage. Whichever is true, it seems the father caught Nicholas and challenged him. Nicholas said that only God required thanks.

In a more Christmassy version of the story, Nicholas is said to have climbed onto the roof and thrown a sack down the chimney. One of the daughters had hung her stockings to dry over the fire. The bag broke and some of the gold spilt into the stocking, creating the idea we have today of hanging stockings for gifts.