Yes, Virginia, there is a St. Nicholas.
Nikolaos of Myra was a 4th Century bishop and Christian saint. He is regarded as the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, the falsely-accused, thieves, and of course children. In America, the legends surrounding him became transmuted into holiday figure of Santa Claus.
He was born on March 15, AD 270 in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), the child of wealthy Greek parents. His parents died when he was very young, and he was raised by an uncle, also named Nicholas, who was a bishop and steered him into the clergy.
Nicholas was one of the bishops participating in the First Council of Nicea in the year 325. He is believed to have signed the Nicean Creed and according to one legend actually belted Arius, the promulgator of the controversy which propmted the Council, in the face.
There are numerous legends concerning Nicholas's miraculous deeds; so many that he is sometimes known as Nikolaos ho Thaumaturgos, "Nicholas the Wonderworker." According to one story, he persuaded some sailors on board a grain ship that had docked in the city of Myra to off-load some of its cargo to help relieve a famine which had struck the city. The sailors worried that they would get in trouble when they delivered the grain and the shortfall was discovered, but when they arrived at their destination, the grain they had given to Myra had been miraculously replenished and all their cargo was accounted for. In another story, an evil butcher had murdered three childern and sealed them in barrels, intending to make them into meat pies; but Nicholas detected his crime and miraculously brought the children back to life.
In his most well-known — and most plausible — exploit is one where he came to the aid of three sisters whose father was too poor to afford a dowry for them which would allow them to get married. To spare the family the indignity of giving them charity publicly, Nicholas tossed a small bag of coins through the window, secretly at night, for each one of the girls. In one version of this legend, he had to drop the coins down the chimney one time and the money landed in the damp stockings the girl had hung by the chimney with care.
He also once saved three men — he seems to have liked doing things in threes1 — who were falsely accused of a crime and facing execution. Nicholas intervened, preventing the execution, and harranged the true culprit to confess.
Nicholas died on December 6, 343 and that day is celebrated as his feast day. It is said that every year on his feast day, his bones exude a clear, watery liquid, smelling like rose water and called "manna" by believers, thought to have powers of healing.
In the 11th Century, the Seljuk Turks seized control of Asia Minor from the Byzantine Empire. Fearing the saint's relics might be lost, a group of sailors stole part of his remains from the church in Myra in which he had been buried and took them to the town of Bari in Italy.
It is a tradition in many European countries that St. Nicholas comes every December 6th to give presents to good boys and girls, often leaving treats in their shoes. He is often accompanied by a servant who does the heavy lifting of presents for him. In Barvaria, his sidekick is a surly peasant named Knecht Rupert; in Holland it is a black-faced man named Zwarte Pieten ("Black Peter") and was originally supposed to be a moor, although in our Politically Correct Era, he is usually bowdlerized as a guy whose face is merely blackened by the soot of the chimneys he clid through; in Austria the companion is a devil named Krampus, who carries a bundle of sticks with which to spank children who have not been all that good.
In America, Nicholas's Dutch name, Sinterklaas became worn down to "Santa Claus" and both the saint and his gift-giving became absorbed by the Christmas holiday. Still, there are places in the United States, especially places with a largely German population, where Dec. 6th is celebrated and children are told to leave their shoes out.
Game and Story Use
- Nicholas would be an interesting NPC to meet in a historical or time travel campaign set in the 4th Century
- He could also serve as a model for a holy man known for his acts of generosity.