Monday, December 23, 2019

NICHOLAS: A 4th Century Saint

By Mary Davis

Before he was known around the world as Santa Claus, Nicolas was a boy like any other. Though little is known of him, many legends and miracles are associated with him. He was born on March 15, 270 into a wealthy family. After his parents died, he distributed his wealth to the poor. He was an early Christian bishop in the maritime city of Myra in ancient Greece and known as Saint Nicolas of Myra. He was also known as Saint Nicolas the Wonderworker because of many miracles attributed to his intercession. He died on December 6, 343.

So, how did we get from 4th century Christian saint to Santa Claus? Likely by way of Holland and Sinterklaas.

Because the earliest accounts of Saint Nicolas were written centuries after his death, few documented facts are known about him. In the absence of those facts, the handed-down stories of this generous man grew and grew, like any legend does with details being added on generation after generation. I’d like to peel back a few layers of the contemporary Santa Claus and see if I can find what of Saint Nicolas remains.

We know that Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created for an ad for a department store in the 20th century, and we can probably all agree that flying reindeer didn’t exist in the 4th century. So that leaves anonymous gift giving—at night, stockings by the fireplace, and the Santa suit.

Anonymous Gift Giving at Night

One of the most famous Saint Nicolas stories is that of a devout man who had three daughters. The man didn’t have money for dowries for them, so they were destined for lives of prostitution. Nicolas, under the cover of darkness, threw three bags of gold (one for each daughter) through the window for their dowries. Some versions say he delivered the gold all on the same night, while other versions say it was three successive nights. Then on the third night, the father waited up and fell on his knees, thanking him. Saint Nicolas ordered the father of the three girls not to tell anyone. Obviously, someone told someone or else the story wouldn’t have been handed down.


Stockings by the Fireplace

Saint Nicolas was popular in Europe until the Reformation in the 1500s when the creation of Protestantism turned away from honoring saints. In Holland, they continued to honor him by holding the feast of Saint Nicolas on December 6th. A common practice was for children to set their wooden shoes out the night before. In the morning, they would discover gifts in them from Sint Nicolaas. In the 1700s, Dutch immigrants brought their tradition of Sint Nicolaas, also known by the nickname Sinterklaas, to America. It’s not a far leap from Sinterklaas to Santa Claus.

Flying reindeer enter the myth in the 1820s by way of a poem “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicolas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Children would then leave carrots for his reindeer, and leaving shoes by the hearth turned into stockings.


Santa Suit

The traditional bishop’s robes and mitre are a striking resemblance to Santa’s attire. In 1881, cartoonist Thomas Nast added to the legend by drawing Santa Claus wearing the typical red with white fur trim Santa suit we associate with Santa.


He became known as the protector of children and sailors as well as associated with gift giving.


Other stories that contributed to his sainthood are his calming of a storm at sea, him stopping an execution of three wrongly accused soldiers, and chopping down a demon possessed tree, among many other later legends.


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“Bygones” Texas, 1884
Drawn to the new orphan boy in town, Tilly Rockford soon became the unfortunate victim of a lot of Orion Dunbar’s mischievous deeds in school. Can Tilly figure out how to truly forgive the one who made her childhood unbearable? Can this deviant orphan-train boy turned man make up for the misdeeds of his youth and win Tilly’s heart before another man steals her away?

MARY DAVIS is a bestselling, award-winning novelist of over three dozen titles in both historical and contemporary themes. Her recent titles include; "Holly and Ivy" in A Bouquet of Brides CollectionThe PRODIGAL DAUGHTERS SeriesThe Widow’s Plight, “Zola’s Cross-Country Adventure” in The MISSAdventure Brides CollectionThe Daughter's Predicament, and "Bygones" in Thimbles and Threads. Shes an ACFW member and critique groups. Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of thirty-four years and two cats. She has three adult children and two adorable grandchildren. Find her online:


  1. Thanks for reminding us about all the stories of Santa. Merry Christmas!

  2. Great post, Mary! We used to have fun celebrating St. Nicholas Day with our kids on Dec. 6 when they were little and put out their stockings for that day. We would read about this generous man that the legend centered around each year. One thing in our reading of his story is that he threw the bags of gold in through the window and the girls' stockings were hanging up near the window to dry and that is how hanging up stockings became a part of the legend.