Where did St. Nicholas come from?

St. Nicholas, upon whom the figure of Santa Claus is based, was the bishop of Myra (today called Demre), on the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Turkey. He lived from 270-346. Nicholas was renowned for his generosity and also revered as a miracle worker, although little is known about his life. According to legend, Nicholas secretly tossed bags of gold into the window of the home of a poor family whose three daughters had no dowry; by providing them the means to marry he saved them from a life of destitution. Nicholas was also said to have left coins in shoes left out for him as he passed by. Out of this legend grows the tradition in which children set out their shoes on the eve of his feast day, December 6, in the hopes of finding candy, money or toys in them in the morning. St. Nicholas’ Day is widely observed in Europe, while in the United States the figure of Santa Claus, who brings gifts on December 25, is better known.

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.