Nicholas is the great patron of children and of Christmas giving. Santa Claus is a short form of St Nicholas. This famous saint was born in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey.
Nicholas was born into a Greek family in the city of Patara on the Mediterranean Sea in Asia Minor during the third century. He lived in Myra (part of modern-day Demre, Turkey). His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young and after his parents died, he gave all his money to charity. His uncle, who was a bishop, later ordained Nicholas a priest.
Legend has it that once a certain poor man was about to abandon his daughters to a life of sin because they did not have the money for a dowry. Nicholas heard about his problem. He went to the man’s house at night and tossed a little pouch of gold through a window. This was for the oldest daughter. He did the same thing for the second daughter. The grateful father kept watch to find out who was being so good to them. When St. Nicholas came a third time, the man recognized him. He thanked Nicholas over and over again.
Later St Nicholas became bishop. He loved justice. It is said that once he saved three men who had been falsely condemned to death. He then turned to their accuser. He made the man admit that he had been offered money to get rid of the three men.
In 325, he was one of many bishops to answer the request of Constantine and appear at the First Council of Nicaea. There, Nicolas was a defender of the Orthodox Christian position and one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed.
St Nicholas died in Myra, and a great basilica was built over his tomb. Many churches were dedicated in his name. When his relics were brought to Bari, Italy, this city became a famous shrine for pilgrims from all over Europe. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and prisoners. With St Andrew, he is the patron of Russia.
In medieval times nuns used the night of 6 December to deposit baskets of food and clothes anonymously at the doorsteps of the needy. According to another source, on 6 December sailors in Holland (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbour towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy gifts for their loved ones and little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas. Today, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver, the model for Santa Claus.