A person’s reputation can change over time. Take, for example, St. Nicholas.
If you are not a part of the Catholic Church, you might think that St. Nicholas is merely another name for Santa Claus found in old poetry or classic holiday lyrics. Even those within the church can have a hard time divorcing the idea of a jolly old man clad in a red suit and hat and a cheerful smile from the historical person. To many of us, St. Nicholas is as interchangeable a name as Kris Kringle or Father Christmas.
In real life, St. Nicholas was a bold champion of the faith, fiercely defending the Gospel from all sides, including other factions of the early church. He was also known for his generosity and care for children and orphans. In fact, many Christmas traditions (such as giving gifts to children or leaving presents by the fireplace) have their origins in this dynamic individual. Some aspects have been exaggerated or may have been added over time, but let’s explore the story together.
11 Facts About St. Nicholas
#1 When did St. Nicholas live?
St. Nicholas was born in 260 in Asia Minor, which is now part of the country of Turkey. The surviving accounts of his life were discovered centuries after his life and therefore have been expanded to include extra legends about his life and work. However, the historical Nicholas of Bari was a Greek bishop during the time of the Roman Empire.
#2 What were some of the hallmarks of his ministry?
Nicholas became well known in fact, and in legend, for his generosity. The most famous story revolves around a father whose three daughters were in danger of being sold into prostitution since they could not afford the price of a bride’s dowry. He deposited the money for each daughter three nights in a row, in secrecy and under the cover of darkness. Although this story may be legendary and not real, it remains the most indelible part of Nicholas’ reputation and is the typical example of the generosity that marked his ministry.
#3 How did he influence the early church?
Some sources state that he attended the Council of Nicaea, which was responsible for establishing much of early Christian doctrine in the wake of the religion’s legitimacy under the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine. However, some sources debate whether or not he actually attended.
He is said to have argued in favor of Trinitarianism, the belief that one God exists in three Persons – God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit. He is also famed for striking a heretic in the face during a heated argument over doctrinal positions. However, the primary advocate for this position at the Council, Athanasius of Alexandria, does not include Nicholas in his list of the Council’s attendees.
#4 When and how did he die?
He was buried in his church in Myra and believed to have died around 343. The date of his death, December 6, has been proclaimed a feast day on the Catholic calendar.
#5 Where are his relics stored?
Relics, or the physical remains or personal effects of a saint, are themselves venerated as sacred material. Relics related to St. Nicholas can be found throughout the ancient Roman Empire. A shrine dedicated to his name is located on the Island of Gemiler, which is called the “Island of Sailors.” Relics can also be found throughout Italy, and his remains were moved to Ireland and a tomb was erected in the 11th century.
#6 How does someone become a saint?
After a person has died, their life is investigated by an official expert authorized by the Church. Their initial report is submitted to the bishop of their diocese and further investigation is performed. They may then submit the individual to the office of the Pope for recognition by the universal church. If this recognition is granted, they will have been venerated by the Church, and are given the title “Venerable.”
The next level involves further research, and if warranted the person is beatified and is given the new title “Blessed.”
The final level of investigation determines whether or not miracles were performed. Proof of at least two miracles performed by God through this person must be verified. Once this is proven, the Pope may canonize this person as a saint through a public proclamation.
#7 What is his patronage?
Some Christian denominations, such as Catholicism, recognize certain saints as able to intercede before God by prayer on behalf of those suffering from a particular ailment or to pray on behalf of a certain kind of believer. Others do not believe that saints can intercede on behalf of the living when they die.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, due to the focus of much of his ministry and his famed generosity toward children. He is also the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, broadcasters, archers, and many other professions.
#8 What miracles are attributed to St. Nicholas?
One miracle that lacks historicity, but is nonetheless his most famous miracle, centers around the resurrection of three children. They were murdered and stored in a barrel, but Nicholas knew where they were and proclaimed a blessing over their bodies by making the Sign of the Cross, and they came back to life. This tale has been disproved by later research but remains a popular depiction in artwork and stained glass portrayals of Nicholas from the Middle Ages.
#9 How is St. Nicholas connected with Santa Claus?
St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6 and his storied generosity to children led to the tradition of giving gifts to children in his name. With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther advocated that the gift-giving tradition be moved to the celebration of Christmas itself on December 25, in order to keep children’s attention on Christ instead of the saints.
St. Nicholas himself remained closely tied to the holiday, and the English tradition of Father Christmas was also moved to coincide with Christmas. This led to the modern depiction of Santa Claus.
#10 Did St. Nicholas actually leave gifts for children?
Many traditions about Santa Claus, such as descending a chimney and leaving gifts under a tree or inside stockings hung by the fireplace, were coopted from many different nations and cultures. However, the early tale of Nicholas’ provision for the three brides was the earliest account of a silent gift giver visiting in the night to give gifts on behalf of children. This does link St. Nicholas with the later Christmas traditions, as well as numerous accounts from his historical ministry.
#11 How is St. Nicholas honored today?
In addition to his feast day, Nicholas is celebrated by the Catholic Church in numerous ways. He is also a very important figure for the Eastern Orthodox Church due to his ministry in Turkey and later popularity in the Russian and Serbian churches. Many traditions around gift-giving are maintained in his honor.
While he may not have worn a red suit and flown a sleigh, St. Nicholas was a real figure of the early church who made giving a central focus of his life and ministry.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.