In many parts of the world Christmas celebrations begin with the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, when children place their shoes on window sills the evening before in hopes of finding coins in them the next morning. Our custom of Christmas stockings probably dates to the shoes put out on St. Nicholas Eve in hopes of a visit from the saintly bishop.
In parts of Europe St. Nicholas is still the bringer of Christmas gifts, but in our country and others he has evolved into Father Christmas or Santa Claus but the name Santa Claus is really a derivation of St. Nicholas.
How did a Greek bishop from the third century become Santa Claus? It all began in the city of Myra, a seaport on the southern coast of Anatolia, which is now Turkey. Bishop Nicholas was from a wealthy family and was famous for his anonymous gifts of gold coins to poor people in need. The coins were left secretly at night to be found by the surprised recipients in the morning. In addition to his generosity, St. Nicholas is said to have performed many miracles. Among Eastern Christians he is known as St. Nicholas the Wonderworker.
St. Nicholas was a very real person. He was among the bishops who participated in the Council of Nicea, the first Ecumenical Council. He also was known for his defense of orthodoxy against the heretic Arius who questioned the divinity of Jesus and was condemned at Nicea.
In the eleventh century the saint’s bones were taken from his tomb in Myra and moved to the Italian city of Bari where they remain today. They may not be there long however as the Turkish government last year requested that they be returned to Myra (now called Demre) claiming that they had been taken illegally by crusaders. Demre is a popular place of pilgrimage for Eastern Christians who have great devotion to St. Nicholas.
You may not want to put your shoes out, but a good way to celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day is to imitate him by giving an anonymous gift to someone in need.