by Sister Spero
Who was St. Nicholas, whose feast is celebrated on December 6?
Very little is known about St. Nicholas, the inspiration for Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and “jolly ole St. Nick.” The real St. Nicholas was a bishop in Myra (now in modern Turkey) in the 300’s during the Roman persecutions of Christians. He was imprisoned, and then released when the Emperor Constantine embraced the Christian faith. He was present at the Councils of Nicea, which affirmed Christian doctrine and gave us the Nicene Creed. Early images and icons of St. Nicholas look ascetic and severe, nothing like “jolly ole St. Nick.”
So where did the legend begin? Bishop Nicholas was thought to have been a wealthy young man who gave his money away secretly. A well-known story in the Middle Ages was about three sisters (destitute and without a dowry, so they could not be married), who were about to be sold as slaves. One of them put her stocking out at night, and in the morning found it filled with gold, enough for a dowry. The same thing happened to another sister the second night. The third night, the girls’ father stayed up to discover the secret visitor and found it was Nicholas. All three girls were saved.
St. Nicholas is one of the most popular saints in the world. It is ironic that a secret act of mercy would be the inspiration for so much gift-giving today, and make the anonymous giver a household name nearly 1,700 years later.