If you or your ancestors hail from central or western Europe, you may know that December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, is the day the children receive gifts. This goes back as early as the 12th century when French nuns began to leave candy, nuts, and fruit as gifts outside the doors of poor families with children. Hundreds of years later, various cultures developed customs of gift giving on the Epiphany (January 6, in imitation of the gifts of the Magi), and Christmas in honor of Jesus’ birth. Usually, the gifts were left late at night on the vigil so they would be discovered with delight early in the morning.
What do we know about St. Nicholas? The only historically verifiable “hard facts” are that he existed as bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Everything else is legend coming from years or centuries after his death. Legends testify, however, that something about his life almost immediately sparked the popular imagination, and he continued to live vibrantly in the hearts of the people who came to know of him. Legends convey a quality of truth that can’t be known from facts alone.
Myra, a memorable but very out-of-the-way destination on several of the Early Christian World Pilgrimages I led, is a city on the southern coast of present-day Turkey. Today it’s known as Demre or Kale — it’s not unusual for Turkish cities to have more than one name in current usage, much to the confusion of tourists. It’s especially popular with Russian visitors, for whom Nicholas is a special patron, and much of the souvenir trade seems directed to them. There are several statues of the saint in the town, depicting him variously as a traditional Byzantine bishop, a handsome young man in local peasant garb with several children around him, and — you guessed it — a modern Ameican-style Santa Claus.
Want to know more? “The Real Saint Nicholas” is the title of articles in two different magazines, Christianity Today and St. Anthony Messenger, both worth the few minutes they take to read. One website, however, provides your one-stop source for all you might want to know about St. Nicholas, and then some: St. Nicholas Center — Discovering the Truth about Santa Claus. I think you’ll enjoy visiting there and exploring. You’ll discover lots of trivia to amuse or annoy your friends in conversation, as well as suggestions for having fun in celebrating St. Nicholas with children.
Note: the two postage stamps depicting St. Nicholas are from Brazil and Ukraine.