The unsatisfying answer to the title of this post is that nobody knows for sure.  To quote one Nicholas scholar “We can grant a bishop of that name who had a great impact on his homeland.  We can also accept December 6 as the day of his death and burial.  These are all the facts we can hold to.  Further we cannot go.” (Gustav Anrich quoted by Charles W. Jones in Saint Nicholas of Bari, Myra, and Manhattan).

According to the best estimates, Nicholas, was born around 280 AD in Patara, in Asia Minor.  He later became bishop of Myra in modern day Turkey. Nicholas, it seems, died about 343 on or near December 6.  That is the date of his Feast Day in the Catholic church.

There is no record of his existence attested in any document until the 6th century.  By that time Nicholas, whoever he had been, was already famous.  The emperor Justinian dedicated a church to him in Constantinople.  Initially, Nicholas was most well known in the East.  But by 900, a Greek wrote “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him.  Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor.  All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection.”  In 1087, Italian sailors stole his supposed relics and took them from Myra to Bari, Italy.  This greatly increased his popularity in Europe and made Bari one of the most crowded pilgrimage sites.  It is said that Nicholas was represented by medieval artists more than any other saint except Mary.

The Man and the Myth

Why was Nicholas so famous?  Well, it’s impossible to tell fact from fiction, but this is some of the legend of St. Nicholas:

He was reputed to be a wonder-worker who brought children back to life, destroyed pagan temples, saved sailors from death at sea, and as an infant nursed only two days a week and fasted the other five days.

Moving from probable legend to possible history, Nicholas was honored for enduring persecution. It is said that he was imprisoned during the Empire wide persecution under Diocletian and Maximian. Upon his release and return, the people flocked around him “Nicholas! Confessor! Saint Nicholas has come home!”

Nicholas was also hailed as a defender of orthodoxy. Later sources claim he was in attendance at the council of Nicea. According to tradition, he was a staunch opponent of Arianism. Writing five centuries after his death, one biographer wrote “Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison.” Stories of his courage abound, one claiming that Nicholas traveled to Nicea and, upon arrival, promptly slapped Arius in the face. As the story goes, the rest of the council was shocked and appalled, so much so that they were going to remove Nicholas from his bishopric, that is until Jesus and Mary appeared to defend him. According to the same legend, this apparition changed the minds of the  delegates who quickly recanted of their outrage.

As you might have guessed, Nicholas was also revered for being a generous gift giver. Born into a wealth family, he inherited the fortune when his parents died.  Apparently he gave his vast fortune away.  The most famous story involved three girls who were so destitute that they were going to be forced into a life of prostitution.  But Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the window as dowries for the young woman.

Over time, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of nations like Russia and Greece, cities like Fribourg and Moscow, and of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers (the three gold balls hung outside pawn shops are symbolic of the three bags of gold).

Christmas and St. Nicholas

In honor of St. Nicholas the gift giver, Christians began to celebrate December 6 (his feast day) by giving presents. The tradition developed over time.  For good boys and girls, St. Nicholas would come in his red Bishop’s robe and fill boots with gifts on the night of December 5.  For bad boys and girls St. Nicholas was to be feared.  In highly catholic parts of Europe, St. Nicholas became a deterrent to erring young children.  In Germany, he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht (farmhand Rupert) who threatened to eat misbehaving children.  In Switzerland, St. Nicholas threatened to put wicked children in a sack and bring them back to the Black Forest.  In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas’ helper would tie them in a sack and bring them back to Spain.  In parts of Austria, the priest, dressed up in Christmas garb,  would visit the homes of naughty children and threaten them with rod-beatings. At least nowadays, he only checks his list!

Not surprisingly, the Reformers were less than friendly towards the traditions that had been built up around the saints. Luther rejected the saints’ days, believing they were built upon legends and superstitions (and a virulent strain of moralism we might add). In Germany, Luther replaced Saint Nicholas’ Day with a different holiday, Christ Child, or Christkindl.  Ironically, Kriss Kringle which derived from Luther’s Christ Child holiday, has become just another name for St. Nicholas.

From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus

The cult of St. Nicholas virtually disappeared in Protestant Europe, with the exception of one country: the Netherlands. If you love Christmas with all the trappings of Santa Claus and stockings and presents, thank the Dutch. If you despise all that, try to ignore my last name for the time being. The Puritans had done away with St. Nicholas and banned Christmas altogether.  But the Dutch held on to their tradition and brought it with them to the New World.  In the Netherlands Sint Nicolaas was contracted to Sinterklaas.  According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas rides a horse and is accompanied by his helper Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.  Many people consider Black Pete a racist stereotype derived from slavery, although others claim he is black because he goes down the chimney and gets a face full of soot.

At any rate, it is easy to see how Sinterklaas evolved in America to Santa Claus. Santa Claus became the Santa we know in the United States only after the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written in 1823. Possibly the best known verses ever written by an American, the poem has greatly influenced the tradition of Santa in the English speaking world and beyond.

Jolly Old St. Nick and Jesus

How should Christians relate to the traditions of Santa Claus? C.S. Lewis embraced them and so included Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Other Christians, fearing syncretism, stay clear of Santa, reindeer, and a tree full of presents. I’ll leave it to you and your family to form you opinions on observing the Christmas holiday (see Rom. 14:1, 5-6). Personally, we try to walk in the middle of the road on this one: we don’t teach our kids about Santa, but we are happy to enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, a couple Christmas trees, and a little Bing Crosby. And if the kids, picking up bits and pieces from other places, end up listening for flying reindeer landing on the roof, we’re not going to introduce the laws of physics to crush their anticipation. Most of all, of course, we try to press home that Christmas is about Christ.

But if you have a lot of Santa Claus around, why not use him to your benefit and talk about the real St. Nicholas. We don’t know a lot about him, but we know he lived and was revered. According to legend-one of those stories that probably isn’t true, but should be–when Nicholas was little boy he would get up early in the morning to go to church and pray.  One morning, the aging priest had a vision that the first one to enter the church in the morning should be the new bishop of Myra.  When Nicholas was the first to enter, the old priest, obeying the vision, made the young boy bishop right on the spot.  But before he consecrated Nicholas a bishop, the priest asked him a question. “Who are you, my son?”  According to tradition, the child whose legend would one day become Santa Claus replied, “Nicholas the sinner.” Not bad for a little boy.

With what little we know about St. Nicholas, it is safe to say he would not be pleased to know he had eclipsed Christ in the hearts of many as the central figure of Christmas. For the Bishop of Myra no doubt knew the angel’s words to Joseph: “Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So this Christmas, give gifts if you like. We will in our family. Receive them all with thanksgiving.  But do not forget what we need most–salvation through substitution. This is one gift the real St. Nicholas would not have overlooked.

View Comments


9 thoughts on “Who Was St. Nicholas?”

  1. a. says:

    as you say, the substance of the holiday tradition must belong to Christ is Jesus, not saint nick, not santa .. “in whom all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form; in whom we have been made complete; and it is He who is the head over all rule and authority; and when we were dead in our transgressions and the uncircumcision of our flesh, it is He who made us alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt against us, which was hostile to us, and it is He who has disarmed the rulers and authorities and has triumphed over them” we assure no one takes our children captive through empty deception according to the tradition of men rather than according to Christ. Col.2:8-15

  2. CBW says:

    I’m from the Netherlands. You reffer to the discussion about “Zwarte Piet”. This year in the Netherlands the discussion was at a all-time fierceness. This feast for children has never been disputed until recent years. Mainly people from the black community in the big city’s protest against it and sees it as racism. Most Dutch people don’t have any problem with this feast. It’s long tradition. I’ve never thougt of it as racism and most Dutch people don’t. Every year there is a national entry (from Spain as the myth says) in a Dutch city which is broadcasted by Dutch national television. Normaly a joyfull day for children. But this year there was riots between people who are against this feast en people who want to keep it. 60 persons were arrested. It’s really outrageous and a shame!

    Interestingly, over here Christmas (ofcourse 25th-26th december) and the feast of Sinterklaas (5th december) are separate events. Ofcourse we know Santa Claus is by far not so populair as in the USA. Christmas is about our Lord and Savior and Dutch Christians will certainly not think about Santa Claus with Christmas. All we see here from Santa Claus is from American movies and commercials from Dutch companies. Santa Claus become, sadly, more and more a replacement for Christ for secular Dutch people, which illustrates the emptiness of a life without God.

    Thanks Kevin for your very interesting posts at this blog! I always look forward to your posts. And indeed you have a Dutch name. This is officially the most common name in the Netherlands . In the Netherlands you name would be “De Jong”. Interesting to see that “Jong” is translated in “Young” and that “De” and “Young” are written together. Something you would never see the Netherlands. But “De” betrays that your name is from Dutch origin.

    May God bless you!

  3. Kevin DeYoung says:

    CBW, thanks for the report from the homeland. I had heard about the increasing tensions, but I didn’t know things were so volatile.

    When I was a pastor in Orange City, Iowa (named after William of Orange), there were 16 other De Jong families in the church. We were the only ones who spelled our name incorrectly! Family legend has it that the name was anglicized when one of my relatives was signing up with the Union to fight in the Civil War.

  4. CBW says:

    Thanks for your reaction, Kevin! It’s indeed a strange situation. But now Sinterklaas has past for this year. What will happen next year? In some cities there are already “zwarte pieten” in other colors than black or even in multiple colors (regenboog (rainbow) pieten). In my opinion only in a prosperous country like the Netherlands people are so bussy with such futile things

    That’s a large number of family’s with the name De Jong. I recently read a travelogue of a Dutch pastor who traveled multiple times to the USA in the fifties and the sixties. In this book you see that everywhere he comes, there are at least some Dutch immigrants. Ofcourse Michigan is well known (Grand Rapids etc.).
    Although a legend, it’s still a interesting explanation for the origination of your last name!

  5. Vincent says:

    What a nice article. In the foggy air of legend we can still see some truth worth repeating. I really liked the ‘Nicholas the sinner!’ anecdote. The Lord bless you for your service

  6. Melody says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I love knowing how legends and history come together, even though in this case we don’t know much.

  7. John F says:

    On the Zwarte Piet controversy: “Oh it’s all meant in fun. The children have such a good time!” Do you know why US/British Santa has elves? Because even a couple of generations ago it was realised that Santa’s black helpers was not a good idea. “It was never thought of a racist originally.” Historical untruth. Europe has a pretty poor record on race relations. “There’s so much else to worry about!” Then nothing will ever get done because there’s always so much else to worry about!

  8. Lynn Arthur says:

    My sisters manger scene includes Santa kneeling in adoration. I think that’s appropriate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Search this blog


Kevin DeYoung photo

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

Kevin DeYoung's Books