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The History of St. Nicholas

Ah yes, Jolly old St. Nicholas, undoubtedly the best-known historical figure who inspired the modern-day Santa Claus, although there have been many others.  December 6th is the Catholic feast day for St. Nicholas.  There is a feast day for a saint every day of the year, and families would celebrate the feast days honoring the saints whom their children were named after.  Unless, of course, the saint in question was of special importance.  Like St. Patrick's day.  Or St. Stephen (Remember how Good King Wenceslas went out on the feast of Stephen?  Yeah, that's all I remember for that feast day too.).  But no Saint has been as universally loved as St. Nicholas, and this started long before Santa Claus was making his rounds.  As a Catholic Bishop, there is no question that St. Nicholas himself gives another point to team Christian, if we're keeping score, even if some of his legends were appropriated from Pagan beliefs.  But that's a topic for another day, let's talk about St. Nicholas himself.  He was a great man worth studying!

St. Nicholas was a wealthy man from Turkey, born between 250 and 270 A.D. He inherited a great fortune from his parents when they died in his youth.  He was an early bishop in the Christian church, before it was cool.  And by that, I mean before Constantine converted to Catholicism.  In his early days as a church leader, he was among those persecuted for Christianity.  He was a Bishop of the church during that history-altering time when Christianity became all the rage.  And what a great leader he was.  He was generous with his money, feeding the poor, rescuing poor souls from bondage, and releasing the innocent from wrongful punishment.  

While St. Nicholas was a real man, and a very good one, the myths and legends about him have made him to be something far more powerful than a real person could ever be.  He brought people back to life.  He calmed the wild ocean saving many lives, henceforth becoming the patron saint of sailors.  He miraculously fed large crowds with only a little food.  And on it goes.

If you want to learn more about St. Nicholas, I highly recommend the Documentary on Amazon Prime entitled "St. Nicholas:  The Real Story".  Here you'll see how many churches are dedicated to him, the pilgrimages millions have made to see his relics, more about what we know about his life verses his mythos, and historians' best guess on what he looked like.

We have a fun little tradition we have adopted from Catholic Europe for 7 years now.  On St. Nicholas day, our children receive their Christmas stockings.  Here is what we have in the stockings, and the "why" behind it.

  • A candy cane, representing the crozier St. Nicholas would have carried as a bishop, which, in turn according to some sources represents the Shepherd’s staff.
  • Gold-leafed candy, representing the money St. Nicholas gave to free the three sisters from slavery.  There were three sisters who had no dowry and were doomed to become slaves (or live their lives as impoverished spinsters in other versions).  However, the grieving father was delighted to find anonymously given money on the night before his oldest daughter's fate would have been sealed.  His next daughter was saved by the same miracle when she was of age.  When his last daughter was of age, the father waited up all night to see if he could catch the generous donor and thank him.  He was surprised to find the beloved Bishop St. Nicholas, who told him not to tell anyone.  Naturally, it being a secret, soon everyone knew.  According to some of these legends, St. Nicholas threw the money in through the window in the middle of the night, and they landed in the stockings that had been hung out to dry by the fireplace.  While gifts in shoes or stockings originate from Odin and the Wild Hunt, this is still a fun story, and the oldest Christianized legend for why we put gifts in stockings.
  • An orange, and some other healthy treat, to remind us of how St. Nicholas freely fed the poor.  His life was a life of generous giving.
  • Some other stocking stuffer, often from the dollar store, just to make it fun.

There are many ways to celebrate St. Nicholas Day with young children, and this website has compiled a few.

If you're looking for crafts and activities to celebrate, Catholic Icing has put together an impressive collection.  Happy St. Nicholas Day!

Christmas History Advent Calendar

St. Nicholas is day 6.


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Christmas History


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