Saint Nicholas (270-310) was at one time bishop of Myra, a town in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He is supposed to have died on December 6, which is why his feast is celebrated on that date. Recognized for his great generosity, he is the patron saint of little children and school children.

Tradition tells us that he became concerned about the welfare of three young women in his parish. Their father, of noble estate, was impoverished and about to deliver them into a life of slavery to ameliorate the family situation. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for a young woman’s dowry to support her parental family for a time. Saint Nicholas is called a saint because he saw the impending bondage of three women. He provided the gift, the golden dowry of their freedom. This lifted the burden of necessity and made it possible for each of these young women to make their own way in the world.

Some versions of the story tell that Saint Nicholas threw his gift of gold down the chimney. Some say he left it by the door or tossed it through the open window. At Christmas time we have a curious likeness of the venerable saint scurrying down chimneys, bearing gifts, the gifts that add a measure of richness to our lives. Who can doubt the reality of Santa Claus knowing his origins, knowing the spirit he evokes? Saint Nicholas of Myra lives on in all those Christmas offerings that liberate people to live lives in which joy is possible.

The feast of Saint Nicholas was abolished in some European countries after the Protestant reformation of the XVIth century. The Dutch, however, have preserved this ancient Catholic custom, and small Dutch children still await the visit of Sinter Klaas (Saint Nicholas) on the night of December 6.At the beginning of the XVIIth century, the Dutch emigrated to the United States and founded the colony of New Amsterdam which, in 1664, became New York. Over several decades, the Dutch custom of commemorating the feast of Saint Nicholas spread to the United States. Sinter Klaas quickly became Santa Claus for Americans.

This thoughtful philanthropist, depicted as an old man in a white beard with a long caped coat or sometimes even in episcopal robes, remained, nonetheless, a moralistic figure. He rewarded deserving children and punished the difficult and unruly ones.
 
After several decades, Christian society found it more appropriate to bring this "children’s festival" closer to that of the Infant Jesus. Saint Nicholas henceforth made his rounds of Christian families during the night of December 24.
Canadian Heritage Information Network
Mission de la recherche et de la technologie, Direction des Musées de France, Musée de la civilisation, Provincial Museum of Alberta, Musée national des arts et traditions populaires, Département de l'organisation des systèmes d'information,

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans