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The REAL story of Santa Claus

I’m sure most people know that Santa Claus is based on the historic figure of St Nicholas.


But how much do you know about St Nicholas?


Today (December 6th) is St Nicholas Day – the day that the church commemorates his life. So, let’s take the opportunity to find out more about the man who inspired the legends of Santa.



St. Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it. There are several legends about St. Nicholas, although we don't know if any of them are true!


The most famous story about St. Nicholas tells how the custom of hanging up stockings to put presents in first started! It goes like this:


There was a poor man who had three daughters. The man was so poor that he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn't get married. (A dowry is a sum of money paid to the bridegroom by the bride’s parents on the wedding day. This still happens in some countries, even today.)


One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house (This meant that the oldest daughter was then able to be married.). The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry! This was repeated later with the second daughter. Determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.


Because of his kindness Nicholas was made a Saint. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children. You can see how the idea of gift giving at Christmas emerged from this story, as well as the custom of hanging stockings on the fireplace for those gifts.


St. Nicholas was exiled from Myra and later put in prison during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. No one is really knows when he died, but tradition holds that it was on 6th December in 345.


In the 16th Century in northern Europe, after the reformation, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas became unpopular. But someone had to deliver presents to children at Christmas, so in England, he became 'Father Christmas' or 'Old Man Christmas', an old character from stories plays during the middle ages in the UK and parts of northern Europe - in France he was known as 'Père Nöel'.


In the early USA his name was 'Kris Kringle' (from the Christkind). Later, Dutch settlers in the USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle and St Nicholas became 'Sinterklaas' or as we now say 'Santa Claus'!



Many countries, especially ones in Europe, celebrate St. Nicholas' Day on 6th December. In The Netherlands and some other European Countries, children leave clogs or shoes out on the 5th December (St. Nicholas Eve) to be filled with presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas's horse, they will be left some sweets.


St. Nicholas became popular again in the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories. In 1823 the famous poem 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' or 'T'was the Night before Christmas', was published. Dr Clement Clarke Moore later claimed that he had written it for his children. The poem describes St. Nicholas with eight reindeer and gives them their names. They became really well known in the song 'Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer', written in 1949.


So we can see how the modern day stories about Santa Claus have gradually emerged over the years from the historic figure of a real person in the 4th Century.


Whatever we think of the idea of a big fat bloke in a red suit, carrying a sack of presents and chortling ‘Ho, ho, ho’, let’s not forget that the heart of the story is a real saint who loved Jesus and responded with acts of love and kindness.

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