The feast day of Saint Nicholas is celebrated in many European countries on 6th December, but who was Saint Nicholas? And why is he associated with Christmas?
Saint Nicholas was born around 280 A.D. in Patara, in what is now Turkey. He was from a wealthy family and his parents died young, bequeathing him their riches. He used his money to help the poor and sick. He was a devout Christian and later was bishop of Myra, now Demre. He was celebrated for his gift-giving and many stories survive of his altruism. One has him return to the same family three times to give a widower gold to pay for his daughters’ dowries before they were sold into slavery. As the father was a proud man, he delivered the bounty through open windows, by the renaissance the story had evolved to have the gifts delivered down a chimney.
Miracles that are attributed to him include resurrecting three boys whose bodies had been chopped up and placed in barrels by a murderous butcher. This resulted in him being declared the patron saint for children. He is also attributed with halting a storm at sea through prayer ensuring the sailors could reach land safely, therefore he is also the patron saint of sailors.
His gift-giving has become part of folklore and also part of the Christmas tradition of leaving presents for people. On the night of 5 December children will place shoes or socks near their fireplaces or doors so that Saint Nicholas can fill them with sweets, fruit or nuts. On the feast day itself in the Alsace and Lorraine region of France, for example, a donkey bearing more treats will be welcomed into communities to celebrate Saint Nicholas.
Over time, Saint Nicholas’ name has changed to Sint Nicolaas, Sinterklaas and later the Americanised Santa Claus. The character also merged with the British pagan Old Christmas who became Father Christmas.
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