St. Nicholas, the Catholic Church, & Santa Claus

Every year, many children hope for gifts from Santa Claus.

Every year, many children hope for gifts from Santa Claus.

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by Contributing Writer

All over the world, the memory of St. Nicholas has inspired annual gift-giving icons. In Scandinavia, an elf named Jultomten drives a goat-drawn sleigh and delivers gifts. English children hope for a visit from Father Christmas on Christmas Eve, and Pere Noel leaves presents for French children. The legend of all these Santa-figures can be traced back to the story of St. Nicholas.

History of St. Nicholas

Nicholas was born in the late 3rd century A.D. in the village of Patara, which was Greek at the time of his birth and is now located on the southern coast of Turkey. Nicholas’ wealthy parents raised him to be a devout Christian, and after their death, Nicholas used his inheritance to help the poor and suffering. Many of his gifts were given during the night as an attempt to keep his identity as the gift-giver anonymous. Nicholas became a priest and later a bishop. In the year 303, the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, declared himself to be a god and ordered all citizens to worship him. Christians believe in a single God and refused to worship any others. For his resistance, Nicholas was imprisoned for five years. When Constantine replaced Diocletian in 313, Nicholas was released, and he returned to his position as Bishop of Myra. He remained there and continued his ministry until his death on December 6, 343.

Legends and Legacy

There are many stories of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds, which illustrate his compassion and commitment to helping those in need. In one story, a father with three daughters was said to have no money for any of his daughters’ dowries, and without dowries, his daughters would likely never marry and would instead be sold into slavery. According to the story, in the night, St. Nicholas left gold in the stockings the daughters had left by the fire to dry. This gold became the girls’ dowries and allowed them to marry. According to legend, St. Nicholas’ deeds continued even after his death. When the townspeople of Myra were celebrating the saint’s feast day, a band of Arab pirates from Crete pillaged the church of Saint Nicholas and kidnapped a young boy, Basilios, to be sold as a slave. Basilios served in the house of a king for a year, and on the next St. Nicholas’ feast day, St. Nicholas was said to have appeared to Basilios and returned him to his parents, still holding the king’s goblet.


By the year 800, St. Nicholas was officially recognized as a saint by the Eastern Catholic church. This means he was deemed a saint centuries before the 10th Century, when the Roman Catholic Church began regulating the canonization process. Before these formal canonizations, believers revered those in their community whose faith had been exemplary. A saint’s reputation would grow beyond the local area and the saint gained large influence in the practices of the church. This is the same way that St. Peter and St. Paul became saints, as no biblical figures or early saints were canonized through the formal process. Still, St. Nicholas’ renown grew, and as of the 1968 revision of the Roman Catholic calendar, St. Nicholas is still venerated and considered a saint.

Santa Claus

In some countries, such as Holland, the Roman Catholic areas of southern Germany and many areas in France, Saint Nicholas is still the primary gift-giver of the season and his feast day is still celebrated on December 6th. In America, St. Nicholas eventually became known as Santa Claus. In 1773 and 1774, a New York newspaper published a story about the Dutch families that honored the day of St. Nicholas’ death. The Dutch called St. Nicholas "Sinter Klass," a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas. Sinter Klaas became Santa Claus over time. Thirty-five years later, in his book, "The History of New York," Washington Irving called St. Nicholas the patron saint of New York. By the 1840s, many holiday shopping advertisements featured depictions of Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moor wrote a poem titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” which famously begins, “Twas the night before Christmas.” This poem helped popularize the image of Santa Claus.

About the Author

Amanda Graber has been a writer and editor since 2009. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications. As an editor, she has worked for both a commercial magazine and a children's literary agency. Graber holds a master's degree in writing and publishing from DePaul University.

Photo Credits

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