Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος, Aghios [“holy”] Nicolaos [“victory of the people”]) (270–6 December 346) is the canonical and most popular name for Nikolaos of Myra, a saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-dayTurkey). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Greek: Νικόλαος ο Θαυματουργός, Nikolaos o Thaumaturgos). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as is common for early Christian saints. In 1087, his relicswere furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari.
The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honored by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students in Greece, Belgium, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Russia, the Republic of Macedonia, Slovakia, Serbia, and Montenegro. He is also the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Beit Jala, Huguenots, Liverpool, andSiggiewi.
In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Santa Claus the patron saint of New Amsterdam, the historical name for New York City. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari. A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil’s feast day on 1 January is considered the time of exchanging gifts in Greece.
In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is December 6, which falls early in the Advent season. Some places he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. Other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children’s wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come.
Where St. Nicholas is prominent, his day, not Christmas, is the primary gift giving day. Parties may be held on the eve, December 5th, and shoes or stockings left for St. Nicholas to fill during the night. Children will find treats of small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies. St. Nicholas gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded for oneself.
Waves of European immigrants brought cherished St. Nicholas holiday traditions to the United States. Over time these have melded into some common practices. If one looks closely, these reveal some distinctive characteristics of beloved St. Nicholas.
Christmas stockings by the fireplace
And the stockings were hung by the chimney with care in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there, goes the oft repeated Christmas rhyme. In the story of Nicholas rescuing the poor maidens from being sold into slavery, the gold dowry money, tossed in through the window, is said to have landed in stockings left to dry before the fire.
Orange or tangerine in the toe of filled Christmas stockings
The gold Nicholas threw to provide the dowry money is often shown as gold balls. These are symbolized by oranges or even apples. So the orange in the toe of the stocking is a reminder of Nicholas’ gift.
Candy Canes *
These are really candy croziers, one of St. Nicholas’ symbols. All bishops carry staffs, hooked at the top like a shepherd’s crook, showing they are the shepherds who care for, or tend, their people.
St. Nicholas Day Blessing of Candy Canes
Gift-giving in secret, during the night
Stockings are filled while children are sleeping. Nicholas did his gift giving secretly, under cover of darkness. He didn’t want to be seen and recognized as he wanted those he helped to give thanks to God.
Seasonal concern for the needy
St. Nicholas gave gifts to those in greatest need—the young and the most vulnerable. Christmas gifts and baskets given to those in need, along with other seasonal contributions to charity, reflect St. Nicholas’ unselfish concern for others. He never wanted or expected anything in return.