Little is known of the life and death of Nicholas of Bari in Italy, except that he was earlier bishop of Myra in modern Turkey in the first half of the 4th century. But legend has lavishly supplemented what history could not, as a result of which Nicholas has become one of the most popular saints in the calendar.
But first the fragments of history: Nicholas, a devout pilgrim, was made bishop of Myra by popular acclaim; he suffered under the emperor Diocletian, in the last Roman persecution, and was imprisoned. Later released under Constantine, he even attended the great Council of Nicea in 325.
The legends celebrate his reputation for generosity and kindness, specially his almsgiving under the condition of anonymity to those in need. The most celebrated legend is about how he saved the reputation of three poor young women by giving them each a purse of gold as a dowry. The people of Myra celebrated this generosity after he died with their own sharing of gifts to children and those in need. This has now become the occasion of gift-giving at Christmas from ‘Santa Claus’, a corruption of the name ‘Saint Nicholas’, a tubby old man in red who bestows presents on children from a sleigh drawn by reindeer.
Thus do legends preserve as well as distort details of what really took place ages ago.
Nicholas is a popular name in Russia, Greece and Sicily, where Christians still remember this saint whose generosity to the needy has made him an icon for all time.