St. Nicholas is one of the most popular saints on the calendar; he is honored by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and even Reformed Protestant churches. He is the person upon whom the Santa Claus
According to tradition, Nicholas was born in the town of Patar in Lycia, in what we now call the nation of Turkey. He was orphaned at an early age and had to live with his uncle in a monastery. His late parents were wealthy and left him a good inheritance, but he gave most of it away to the poor and needy since he was living in a monastery and didn't really need any of it. He wanted to be a monk like us uncle, but one night he had a dream in which Jesus gave him a jeweled copy of the four gospels, and he took this dream as a sign that he was to become a priest, and he did so at the age of 17 (I guess the Commission on Ministry had different age requirements in those days). He was a very generous person and there are many stories about his generosity. Once he met a man in great need, and the man had decided to sell a carpet which was very dear to him and his wife. Father Nicholas bought the carpet from the man at a ridiculously high price, and then gave the carpet to the man's wife as a gift. The most famous story is that of a poor man with three daughters. He had no money to provide them with dowries and was worried that they would never be married and would probably face slavery as a result of their poverty. Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins into the eldest daughter's window one night, and she was soon married. A while later, he tossed a bag of gold coins into the second daughter's window and she, too, was soon married. When it came time to provide a dowry for the third daughter, Nicholas came to toss a bag of gold coins into her window but it was closed, so he tossed it down the chimney, and the bag of coins fell into her shoes (and she, too, was soon married). This legend is the basis of the tradition in some countries of St. Nicholas putting chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil in children's shoes. It's also the basis of the story of Santa Claus coming down the chimney with gifts for good boys and girls on Christmas Eve.
There is a tradition that Nicholas made a pilgrimage to Egypt, to visit the great Library in Alexandria, and continued on to the Holy Land, to Palestine. There is a story that on the way home the ship he was on was caught in a fierce storm an d the three sailors piloting the ship were sure that they were going to die. Father Nicholas came on deck and prayed and stilled the storm. For this reason he became known as the Patron Saint of Sailors. The ship stopped in the city of Myra. The bishop of Myra had died and there was a lot of disagreement about who should be the next bishop. The clergy and people of Myra had started a period of prayer and fasting trying to find a solution to their problem. An angel appeared to several priests in a dream and told them that they were to make a stranger, named Nicholas, the new bishop, and that he would be the first to arrive for morning prayers the next day. That same night, Father Nicholas had a dream of a mitre being placed on his head. The next morning he went to the church for morning prayers and was the first person there. He was proclaimed bishop and the mitre was placed upon his head! He was a good choice for bishop because of his concern for the poor and needy, and his love of children, and his piety and zeal for the gospel. Miracles were attributed to him, and he was nick-named the Wonder Worker. He was also a man of great courage, and he suffered arrest and torture during the persecution of Diocletian and his regent, Maximan, around the years 303 to 311. It is said that Bishop Nicholas continued to preach and teach even while in chains. When Constantine became emperor in 313 and later issued the Edict of Toleration, Christianity became tolerated (and actually favored) by the Empire and people like Nicholas were released from prison. There is an ancient tradition that Nicholas saved the lives of three soldiers who were imprisoned by appearing to the Emperor in his dreams and interceding in their behalf. Just before Constantine became emperor, the Arian Controversy was in full flower in the Church, creating great dissension and schism. The Emperor Constantine called all the bishops of the Church to Nicea in 325 to settle this dispute. Tradition states that Bishop Nicholas of Myra attended the Council and even slapped Arius in the face, but Nicholas' name does not appear on any of the lists, so this incident and Nicholas' attendance at the Council is in doubt. Nevertheless, Arianism never took hold in Myra, so the faithful teaching of Nicholas must have prevented the heresy in that city.
Nicholas died on December 6, 342, and this day is now a feast day. During the Middle Ages it was a popular practice to elect a boy to be bishop who reigned from December 6th to December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. On that day (the 28th) the "boy bishop" had to preach a sermon in church. It also became popular to give gifts on Nicholas' feast day in honor of his own generosity, especially to children. In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, this tradition replaced the ancient yuletide celebration of Woden. After the Protestant Reformation, St. Nicholas became known as Pere Noel in France, Father Christmas in England,Kriskindl in Germany, Grandfather Frost in Russia, and Sinterklaas in Holland. The mispronunciation of Sinterklaas in the United States resulted in the name Santa Claus.
It's easy to to understand how the example of the kind and generous man who truly lived the Christian life could become a symbol of love and generosity during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, the time in which we remember God's own gift to the world, the gift of Jesus the Messiah. St. Nicholas' love and compassion for the poor, the needy, and for children is an example of how we should live our lives throughout the entire year, not just at Christmas. The stories of St. Nicholas are not stories about Christmas but are stories of a man who was working to bring about the Reign of God, a man who helped the less fortunate, just as Jesus commanded. That is why he became one of the most popular saints in Christendom and why we remember him today.