Get to Know the Real St. Nicholas

Sara and Justin Kraft

Get to Know the Real St. Nicholas

“Jolly old St. Nicholas
lean your ear this way
Don’t you tell a single soul
What I’m going to say…..

When the clock is striking twelve
When I’m fast asleep
Down the chimney you broad and black
With your pack you’ll creep

All the stockings you will find
Hanging in a row
Mine will be the shortest one
You’ll be sure to know”  

(Jolly Old Saint Nicholas from James Ramsey Murray, ed., School Chimes: A New School Book)

The Saint Behind the Legend

Most of us know and love the popular Christmas song “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” but here’s some more information on the REAL “jolly old St. Nicholas.”  This saint’s legends over the years morphed into who we know in the United States as “Santa Claus” but the real saint’s life is far more inspiring than the character we know as Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century in what is now Turkey.  His parents died in an epidemic when he was young, so he inherited a large sum of money.  However, St. Nicholas was very kind and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving gifts in secret to those who needed it.  It is said that he gave his whole inheritance to help the poor, sick and the suffering.

The most common legend surrounding St. Nicholas describes how the custom of hanging up stockings to put presents in them began.  One poor man had three daughters, but no money for a dowry to be paid to the groom on the wedding day. After learning of the situation, St. Nicholas dropped a bag of gold down the chimney one night so he could gift it anonymously.  This gift meant the oldest daughter was able to get married. However, the gold fell into a stocking that had been hanging by the chimney to dry! When the second daughter was ready to be married, St. Nicholas dropped another bag of gold down the chimney.  Legend has it, however, that St. Nicholas was caught when he dropped the bag of gold down the chimney for the third daughter.

St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers because when he was young, he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  On his return by sea, there was a storm that threatened to wreck the ship. When St. Nicholas calmly prayed, the wind and the waves were suddenly calmed and saved all of their lives.

After becoming bishop, St. Nicholas suffered for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.  He was exiled and imprisoned. He died December 6, 343 AD in Myra, in what is now modern-day Turkey. He was buried in the Cathedral church.

Traditional Celebrations

There are many ways to celebrate St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6. Perhaps most famous way to celebrate St. Nicholas Day is to either hang stockings from the mantle or place shoes in front of the fireplace in order for St. Nicholas to fill them with gifts.  This goes back to the legend of St. Nicholas tossing the bag of gold for a dowry down the chimney and it landing in a stocking. These stockings or shoes are filled with treats while children are sleeping.

Some traditional St. Nicholas gifts are oranges or tangerines, as the gold coins are usually shown as gold balls.  Additionally, many families give out small bags of gold chocolates in the shoes or stockings to represent the dowry.  

Candy canes can also be given in order to remind us of St. Nicholas’ crozier, which is hooked like a shepherd’s crook to remind us that as bishop, he is a shepherd who tends his people. 

There are many beautiful books sharing the story of St. Nicholas which can be read as a family in order to draw inspiration from this selfless saint. 

Celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6th can be a great way of restoring the meaning of Christmas in your home. First, the simplicity of the traditional St. Nicholas feast day gives provides a stark contrast to the materialistic nature of gift giving in modern American culture. Oranges and small food items are gifts which provide an essential of life. Receiving them as gifts gives children an opportunity to learn to be grateful for the little ways God sustains us each day. 

Secondly, celebrating St. Nicholas the Bishop rather than Santa Claus is a great reminder that faith is at the center of the Holiday. The Church and Jesus Christ are inseparable. Thus, the life of the Church and attending Mass are the heart of Christmas. 

Additionally, St. Nicholas did his gift giving secretly in order that those he helped would thank God, not him.  As a family, you can determine how you can best help the less fortunate this year by giving alms in some way. That may be adopting a child or family for Christmas by giving them gifts, giving food to your local food pantry, or simply help serve a meal at your local soup kitchen.  A local Catholic school has a tradition of each student bringing a toy for a child for a local social services organization.

For example, our parish has a “giving tree” filled with ornaments that list a gift requested by a needy family. We really like to participate in the giving tree as an opportunity to imitate St. Nicholas. We let each of our children select one ornament. Then the children help in the selection of the gift. For example, our 4 year old daughter helped pick out the doll for her giving tree gift last year. 

In our house, our children look forward to both St. Nicholas’ visit on his feast day on December 6, and also Santa Claus’ visit on December 25 to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.