Saint Nicholas plays a predominant role in Christmas traditions and folklore. Find out why, by reading the facts and legends associated with this pivotal Yuletide character.

Saint Nicholas

Christmas is a wonderful time filled with cheer, goodwill and joy. It is celebrated every December to mark the birth of Jesus Christ and is marked with great vivacity and mirth. People often indulge in celebrating a festival without even knowing about certain elements of the festival. When we think of Christmas characters, one of the most prominent names that come to our minds is Santa Claus. The character of Santa Clause actually stemmed from Saint Nicholas who was the Bishop of Myra in the 4th century AD. Saint Nicholas's patronage includes children, sailors, merchants, fishermen and many more. He was known to secretly give gifts to the penurious, irrelevant of whether they were young or old. St. Nicholas was believed to have been born into an extremely wealthy family and, even when young, was a very religious child. After his parents' death during his adolescence, young Nicholas used his inheritance to help the poor and the infirm. He was eventually made the Bishop of Myra and thus, started the journey of this great saint in whose honour, Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated on the 6th of December every year.

Facts And Legends

'Nikolaos' Of Myra
Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of many different things and people. These included children, sailors and many more. Here are some of the facts/legends of Saint Nicholas:

Saint Nicholas, Children And Clerks
Once, during a terrible famine, a butcher slaughtered three young children and dumped them in a barrel to turn their flesh into meat. He planned on selling the meat off as ham. Saint Nicholas, who happened to be visiting the town at that time, discovered this horrible crime and resurrected the three boys with his prayers. Another variation of this legend replaces the three children with three clerks who wanted to stay over for a night at the butcher's house. The butcher's wife helped her husband do the deed by making poisonous meat pies for the unknowing victims. After consuming the meat pies, the three clerks died but soon, Saint Nicholas brought all three of them back to life.

Saint Nicholas And The Dowry
Another legend associated with Saint Nicholas is that of a poor man who had three daughters, but no dowry to marry them off in respectable families. Due to this, the danger of remaining unmarried, and even prostitution, loomed over the girls' heads. On hearing this, Saint Nicholas decided to help the poor man and his daughters. Saint Nicholas, however, being a modest and humble man and not wanting the poor man to feel as if he were accepting charity, visited the poor man's house at night and inconspicuously threw three purses full of gold coins through the window. In an alternate version, he threw the purses on three consecutive nights while yet another version states that he threw the purses over a period three years; one for each daughter before they came of age.

In an extension of this legend, the father of the girls is said to have stayed awake on the third night to find out as to who exactly was their benefactor. When he found Saint Nicholas and started expressing his gratitude, the Saint denied that he was the secret well-wisher and asked the man to thank the Lord for his blessings.

In another version of the same legend, it is said that the poor man's daughters had washed their stockings on a Christmas Eve and hung them over the fireplace to dry. When Saint Nicholas came by and dropped the bags of gold down the chimney, they landed in the stockings of the girls who were amazed to discover such wealth in the morning. This is possibly where the legend of filling Christmas stockings with little gifts came from.

Saint Nicholas is said to be buried in Bari, Italy. The celebration here is known as 'Festa di San Nicola', which takes place between the 7th and 9th of May every year. On May 8, relics of the Saint are carried on boats in front of the city, followed by many other boats. This takes place just before the 'Festa a mare'. The celebration and festivities that take place on the 6th of December are called 'Rito delle nubile' and that is when the traditional exchange of gifts takes place. Depending on customs and culture, this festival is sometimes considered more important than Christmas itself.

In France, everybody in the family gets ready for Saint Nicholas Day with grandparents narrating stories about the saint. The most popular story told is that of a butcher who led three boys into his house and murdered them, hoping to cure the meat and sell it off as ham. Saint Nicholas is said to have resurrected the children and reformed the butcher. This infamous butcher is called 'Pere Fouettard' who now presumably accompanies Saint Nicholas, keeps a record of naughty children and makes sure that they don't get any gifts on St. Nicholas Day.

United States
Though this festival is not traditionally observed in the US, citizens of German descent usually celebrate it with full verve and excitement. On the Eve of Saint Nicholas Day, people put a boot outside their bedroom doors, only to find little gifts and sweets in them the next day. On Christmas Eve also, children anticipate the arrival of Saint Nicholas and place stockings over the fireplace only to find them filled with treats and gifts the next morning.

Saint Nicholas was the original gift-giver based of whom Santa Claus was created. This benevolent person was not only a real being, but a saint too. He was known for his kindness and good deeds. So, the next time you think of Santa Claus, you know where he really comes from!