The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara—a Greek area at the time, which is now situated on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. After his release in 325, Nicholas dedicated his life to help others. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church.
Through the centuries, many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.
One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. Not being able to provide a dowry for his three daughters, he knew they would not find good husbands, and were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home, providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, were told to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.
Nuns in France began leaving treats on St. Nicholas Eve, December 5th, for the small children of poor families. St. Nicholas’ gifts were usually good things to eat: apples, oranges, nuts, and eventually cookies and sweets. The custom quickly spread across Europe and was adopted by both rich and poor.
The name Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch Sinter Klass pronunciation of St Nicholas. Early Dutch settlers in New York (once called New Amsterdam) brought their traditions of St Nicholas. As children from other countries tried to pronunce Sinter Klass, this soon became Santa Klass, which was settled as Santa Claus. The old bishop’s red cloak was soon replaced with his red suit and clothing seen in other modern images.