The Evolution of St. Nick

Tracing the roots of Santa Claus to the early church.

The first Santa Claus had his roots in the church. His name was Nicholas, bishop of Myra (an ancient city along the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey). Other than his living in the fourth century, very little is known about him historically, though oral tradition abounds. Some accounts have him participating in the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, though surviving documents do not list him among the bishops in attendance.

Myra was a key port city where ships stopped on their way to and from Rome, Egypt, and Byzantium. Paul stopped there on his way to Rome (Acts 27:5-6). Nicholas is said to have saved Myra from starvation by seizing grain off a ship bound for Byzantium from Egypt. Because the stolen cargo was never missed it was counted as a miracle, and the bishop became the patron saint of sailors.

A second "miracle" associated with Nicholas set the stage for his becoming the inspiration behind Santa Claus. According to tradition, a poor family in Myra had three daughters who were being courted for marriage but who had no dowries. This doomed the girls to a life of shame and possible prostitution. The good bishop took it upon himself to supply their dowries, anonymously slipping bags of gold into their home—some say into stockings that were hanging up to dry. In securing their dowries—and so their right to marry—he rescued them from an otherwise degrading destiny. When Nicholas's identity as the benefactor came to light, so began the adulation of this gift-bearing saint. As a result, he also became the patron saint of children.

He died on December 6, A.D. 345 or 352, and was buried in a small church in Myra. But the story of what became of him after his death is almost more fantastic than the works he ...

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The Evolution of St. Nick
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December 4, 2000

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