The Catholic Church observes on December 6 the feast day of St. Nicholas, a bishop known for his generosity and love of children, and is the basis for the legendary character of Santa Claus. The best known story of his generosity was his secret throwing of bags of gold on three separate occasions through a chimney in the house of a poor man to be used as dowries for his three daughters, who would otherwise be sold to slavery. The gold landed in the man’s shoes, which were drying near the fire. This is why children leave their shoes or hang their stockings by the fireplace in the hopes of receiving a gift on the eve of his feast. Over the centuries, this legend evolved into the custom of gift-giving.
St. Nicholas, wearing a red robe and sporting a long white beard, was culturally transformed into the big man riding a reindeer-drawn sled full of toys. He became associated with Christmas and was called the “Good Advent Saint” because of tradition that he gave secret gifts to children. In the East, he is St. Nicholas of Myra (now Demre in modern-day Turkey), the town where he was bishop in the 4th Century; in the West he is St. Nicholas of Bari because, during the Muslim conquest of Turkey in 1087, his relics were taken to a great basilica consecrated by Pope Urban II in Bari, Italy, where they remain to this day. He is the patron saint of children and of sailors.
It is said that in Bari, the relics of St. Nicholas exuded each year a clear watery liquid that smells like rose water, called manna (or myrrh), believed to possess miraculous powers. A flask of manna is extracted from his tomb every year on December 6 by the clergy. Vials of myrrh from his relics have been taken by pilgrims coming from many countries.
St. Nicholas was born in circa 280 in Patara, Lycia, an area that is part of present-day Turkey. Orphaned at a young age, he used his inheritance to help the poor and the sick. He later served as bishop of Myra. He was imprisoned during the persecution of the Church by Diocletian, just before Constantine became emperor. After his death on December 6, 346, the legend of his gift-giving grew, and so did the belief that he was Santa Claus, who brings Christmas presents to the world’s children.