Christians Try to Recapture the Historical Saint Behind ‘Santa Claus’


On December 6, the Catholic Church as well as many other Christian denominations celebrate the memory of Saint Nicholas, who inspired the modern Christmas figure of Santa Claus.

Though the history is patchy, Nicholas is believed to have been born to a wealthy Greek family in what is now Turkey (Asia Minor) during the Third Century, and later served as bishop of Myra (Turkey). The red suit and hat that characterize the contemporary figure were taken from the bishop’s garb of the time, which Pope Benedict temporarily brought back into style during his pontificate.

Nicholas was purportedly loved by the people because of his extraordinary kindness and generosity, as well as for his piety and religious zeal. The image of Santa Claus carrying a sackful of gifts for children comes from Nicholas’ proverbial generosity toward those in need.

Along with his central role in Christmas, St. Nicholas is still venerated in many parts of the world—such as Bari, Italy, where he is buried—as the patron saint of children, sailors, bakers, pawnbrokers, and voyagers. Young women in certain places pray to Nicholas asking for help to find good husbands, because of a tradition that says he would pay the dowries of poor girls to help them marry well.

Every year on December 6, pilgrims, devotees, and tourists gather at his major shrine, the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, as well as in many other churches dedicated to his memory in other parts of the world.

This year the Bari Basilica is holding a photo exhibition titled “Nicholas, the saint,” along with a music and poetry performance. The celebrations will end with the screening of the BBC documentary “The real face of Santa.”

Meanwhile, in Holland, Michigan, a woman named Carol Myers has spent more than a decade trying to redeem the historical Christian saint who was the inspiration for today’s Santa Claus.

“St. Nicholas provides a healthy balance to seasonal over-commercialization by keeping focus on Christ, the center of Christmas, and providing an example of caring for those in need,” Myers said. “He reminds us that Christmas is more about giving than getting, more about compassion than consumption.”

Myers’ website dedicated to Saint Nicholas has reportedly shared that message with more than 17 million visitors.

December 6 marks the day that Nicholas died and on which he has been venerated as a saint for centuries.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome