Who is St Nicholas?
Born in Patara, Lycia circa 280, St Nicholas was a Christian bishop who helped the needy. Despite various forms of his image being recognised around the world, very little is known about the life and deeds of the original saint himself, before his popularisation as Santa Claus.
St Nicholas reportedly lost both of his parents early in his life and used their inheritance to help the poor and sick. He gained recognition for his gift-giving and quickly became known as the ‘protector of children’, with stories of his various miracles and work for the poor spreading to all parts of the world.
St Nicholas was a popular saint in Europe until the time of the reformation in the 16th century, a religious movement that led to the creation of Protestantism, which turned away from the practice of honouring saints. He did, however, remain an important figure in Holland.
The Dutch began celebrating the feast day of St Nicholas, 6 December. It became common practice for children to put their shoes out the night before, to then find them filled and surrounded by gifts the following morning. In the 18th century, Dutch immigrants brought the legend of St Nicholas [known by them as Sint Nikolaas or his nickname, Sinterklaas] to America in the 18th century.
The character and legend of St Nicholas went through many changes, particularly once it was adapted in North America. Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, and instead of giving gifts on 6 December he became part of the Christmas holiday season as most Westernised countries know it today.
The 1820 poem, ‘An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore described him as a jolly, heavy man who comes down the chimney to leave presents for deserving children and drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer. 19th century cartoonist, Thomas Nast further added to the legend with a drawing of Santa Claus wearing a red suit with white fur trim, completing St Nicholas’ transformation into the Santa Claus known and loved by millions around the world today.