BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — It’s Christmastime again, and in a few days, Santa Claus will be coming to town — but, depending on where you are and what beliefs you follow, the celebration for the man Kris Kringle was based on is being held right now. December 6th is the feast of Saint Nicholas in the Christian faith, and as such, there’s no better time to get to know the man many say inspired Father Christmas himself.

An artist’s rendition of the historical Saint Nicholas. (Image Credit:

Many people and famous Christmas songs refer to Santa Claus as Saint Nicholas, and indeed, we tend to associate the name with the holiday hero. Even the fact that there was indeed a Saint Nicholas in history — a Christian bishop given sainthood — is common knowledge. But there is a lot of history behind the figure who would inspire Santa Claus… and quite a bit of it isn’t as merry as you would expect.

While we would love to put together a complete timeline of the history of Saint Nicholas, this is extremely difficult: due to his existence taking place during the same time in Roman history, when records were kept on much less durable materials. Anything that Saint Nicholas himself may have written has been lost to time, and his existence was only mentioned many years after his death.

The most relevant work detailing his life stems from Eustraitus of Constantinople in 583, which refers to a piece known as Life of Saint Nicholas that has not been found and was presumably written shortly after his death. The current incarnation of Life of Saint Nicholas was not released until after Eustraitus’s work and was primarily influenced by older written sources and oral traditions — meaning that the real history of the real man known as Saint Nicholas is widely unknown.

What we do know, however, is that there are plenty of aspects that historians can agree on… including his early life. Tradition states that he was born in the city of Patara, the capital of Lycia, a province in the Roman empire, to wealthy Greek Christian parents. Some accounts also note that his uncle, who saw potential in his nephew and ordained him as a priest, was the bishop of the Lycian city of Myra.

While much remains mysterious, the tales that are told of Nicholas’s history are those that typically occurred during his adulthood. After his parents died, Nicholas traveled through the land distributing their wealth to those in need. In stories of his life — which include chopping down a demonic tree, calming stormy seas, and rescuing children — we can at times see where the more modern traits of Jolly old Saint Nick stem from. Of particular note is the story that showcases his giving spirit and nature of stealthy delivery.

In the tale from the more recent incarnation of Life of Saint Nicholas, Michael the Archimandrite recounts how a faithful man who had all of his money vanish due to Satan’s plotting was concerned about his daughters. Without dowry money (usually paid to a groom’s family by the bride’s family upon marriage), they would remain unmarried, and be forced to become prostitutes without any other proper employment. Saint Nicholas wanted to help the family, but either refusing to do so in public or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity, chose to do so by visiting the home in the dead of night and throwing a purse full of gold coins through their window. This was enough for the man to arrange a marriage for the first daughter. Saint Nicholas would then throw another bag of coins through the window after the wedding, which was enough for the man to marry off his second daughter. After this, the man stayed awake long enough to encounter Saint Nicholas, who warned the man to keep his acts of generosity quiet after delivering a third and final bag of coins. This is believed to be the origin of his gift-giving nature in modern depictions, although the newer instances tend to leave out quite a few of the more inappropriate aspects.

St. Nicholas delivering the dowry for the three daughters, painted by Gentile da Fabriano, 1425. The picture itself is currently located in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Rome.

Given the modern reputation of Santa Claus, it probably comes as no surprise that his namesake is primarily known as the patron saint of children in the west — but there are plenty of other people who swear by the blessings of the original man. Here’s a list of the different people and professions who view Nicholas as their Patron Saint.

  • Children — As one would expect, Saint Nicholas is seen as the guardian of children thanks to his kindness towards them. One particularly famous story of this stems from France, in which during a famine, a wicked butcher killed three children and pickled their remains in barrels to cure, intending to sell them off as pork. Nicholas, who happened to be caring for the hungry in the region at the time, came across the inn and immediately saw through the butcher’s lies before resurrecting the pickled children from death. While this story is nowadays seen as wildly inaccurate and lacking historical value, it was extremely popular in the Middle Ages, with many images of Nicholas in artwork including the children and the barrels in depictions of the saint. The depiction of children with Saint Nicholas, as well as other stories of him coming to the aid of children in dire circumstances, led people to refer to him as the protector and patron saint of children.
  • Brewers — The famous resurrection story had an unexpected side to Nicholas’s image: the constant inclusion of the barrel in depictions of Saint Nicholas also led many to believe he had some association with brewing. As the original story was forgotten, so was the barrel’s history of being full of brine and used to cure children’s bodies, and now it only remains as an image associated with the alcohol-brewing industry.
  • Young Women seeking Marriage Partners — Perhaps one of the most specific groups who receive Saint Nicholas’s protection, this idea stems from the tale of Nicholas’s generosity towards a father and his three daughters. The beloved story of his gifts saving the women from a life on the street is honored even today, where young women who seek marriage partners will leave notes to Saint Nicholas at the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, as well as place their own three coins in a box.
  • Sailors — As some stories go, during Saint Nicholas’s travels to the Holy Land, the ship he was riding on was almost destroyed by a storm. Nicholas, in turn, performed a miracle and caused the storm to cease. Thus, many sailors see him as a patron of good fortune at sea and safety crossing the ocean. Ports in Europe, especially in Greece, have icons of Nicholas that are usually placed as thanks from sailors who believe he protected them during difficult journeys. In some areas, sailors will wish each other luck by saying “May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller.”
  • Prisoners — Saint Nicholas was stated to have a strong belief in justice, especially for innocent victims. Stories of Saint Nicholas’ mercy towards guiltless soldiers and the falsely imprisoned — particularly a tale regarding his rescue of three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution in which he forced the executioner’s sword to the ground, released the soldiers, and chastised a juror who accepted a bribe– have led many to attribute the title of the patron saint of prisoners seeking to redeem themselves and the wrongly condemned.
  • Others — Other smaller, more obscure tales from around Europe have designated Nicholas with more titles, including the patron saint of merchants, archers, pawnbrokers, and students.
St. Nicholas resurrecting the three butchered children. Piece taken from the Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, created sometime between 1503 and 1508)

Following many of the stories about his youth, Nicholas eventually returned to his home and became the Bishop of Myra. Some records indicate that during the Diocletianic Persecution — known as the last and world’s great persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire — he was thrown in prison for his beliefs, but was promptly released once Emperor Constantine took the throne. This imprisonment, while ironic for the patron saint of prisoners, has never been confirmed by historical references.

In the year 325, Nicholas, as a Bishop, was permitted to attend the First Council of Nicaea — where he was one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed. This time, though, there is actually some historical backing to the claim. His name is recorded on Theodore the Lector’s list of attendees, where he’s listed as the 151st. This does not mean there are no disputes about its credibility, though — Nicholas is not mentioned by any of the other historians or bishops at the council. However, Theodore’s list is commonly seen as the most accurate. This would lend itself to two main theories regarding his attendance.

The most common belief by modern historians and scholars suggests that Saint Nicholas did not attend the council, but someone at an earlier time added his name to the list. A secondary theory suggests that he did indeed attend, but that his name was removed from the list due to a certain well-known incident that occurred during the meeting.

Regardless of whether he actually attended or not, it’s here in the Council of Nicaea that one of the most famous stories regarding the real Saint Nicholas emerged over 1,000 years after his death– the tale of the protector of children violently assaulting a fellow councilman. As the tale goes, the attack came from a dispute between Nicholas and Arius, an Egyptian scholar who put forward the idea that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father, and proceeded to argue the idea at great length. As he continued attacking Nicholas’s beliefs, the bishop became more and more agitated, eventually causing Nicholas to storm across the room and slap Arius in the face — a stunt that cost him his saint’s robes.

There are both arguments for and against the event, with some historians claiming that the story’s late attestation means that it is not credible and others arguing that there is no reason why hagiographers would have made it up considering how poorly it reflects on the saint. True or not, the legend itself has become famous in its own right, with later versions portraying Arius as a heretic and having Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary appear to Nicholas in prison, who freed him from his chains and restored his vestments.

An Orthodox Greek fresco depicting Saint Nicholas slapping Aurius during the First Council of Nicea. (Public Domain)

The date of Saint Nicholas’s death is believed to be December 6, 343 A.D. — but it doesn’t take a scholar to realize that his legacy did not end there. Less than 200 years after his death, Emperor Theodosius II decreed that the Saint Nicholas Church would be built over the church he serves, and his remains were relocated to the building. In 1807, after the church was declared to be in conflict with the Seljuk Turks, merchants from Bari removed the major bones of Nicholas from the sarcophagus without permission and brought them to their hometown. They’re currently interred in the Basilica di San Nicola there. Through the years, Saint Nicholas has been adored by both Orthodox and Protestant Christians and even Catholics as an honorable man — even if not a saint in the religious sense, then one by his virtues of generosity and compassion.

Although Santa Claus and his foreign counterparts still visit European countries, in some areas, December 6th — Saint Nicholas’s feast day — is actually the main day of gift-giving and merrymaking for the holiday season. The idea in countries that see this as the major festival day is to ensure December 25th remains all about the birth of the Messiah in Christianity.

The Basilica di San Nicola. (Image Credit: Lonely Planet)

Whether or not Saint Nicholas truly did exist, it’s clear to see where many of the traits of Santa Claus — in particular, his generosity and love of children — originated from. But how did this saintly figure of generosity and heretic-slapping turn into the Christmas icon we all know and love? That’s a story for another day, and rest assured, that day will come soon.

If you’re interested in learning more about the original Saint Nicholas, you can visit the website of the Saint Nicholas Center– a division of the Virginia Theological Seminary discussing the origins and historical traditions of Saint Nicholas across the world — by using this link.