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PHOTO/ Santa Claus’ feast day

See photos of Saint Nicholas, the saint who was the inspiration for the modern Santa Claus, in art on the day of his feast day, the day he died, December Sixth.

Detail of 13th century icon of Saint Nicholas in Sinai Detail of 13th century icon of Saint Nicholas in Sinai

Saint Nicholas, whose feast day is celebrated on December 6th, was born in Asia Minor in the 3rd century (270 AD), in the city of Patara. He lived in Myra, part of the Roman Empire, and has become one of the most famous saints in the world. He is the model for Santa Claus because of his secret gift-giving.

The modern name of Santa Claus comes from the Dutch word Sinterklaas, which evolved from the words “Saint Nikolaos”, though now “Santa” has lost his identification with the saint for most people, and has taken on a commercial tint, like Christmas itself. Now Santa is said to bring presents to all the good children, whereas the Saint mostly helped the poor, putting coins in the shoes left out for him and performing miracles.

Nicholas was always very religious as a child. Then, his parents died when he was young and he lived with his uncle, who was a bishop. He too became a bishop. Saint Nicholas has so many miracles attributed to him, that he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. One of the most famous miracles is that of the resurrection of three children who had been murdered by a butcher and chopped up and hidden among the meat in the butcher shop. Saint Nicholas recognized what the butcher had done, and prayed until the children came back to life.

Another famous miracle is that of the three dowries. Saint Nicholas came to hear about a man with three daughters who did not have enough money for their dowries so they could not get married and must remain destitute. Nicholas snuck to their house and threw three bags of gold in through the window of the house. There is a version of the legend that states that he threw the bags in three separate times and the father waited to see who it was, so Nicholas threw the last bag down the chimney. This could be the origin of the idea of Santa Claus coming down the chimney with presents.

A third famous miracle is that of the grain ships. During a famine in Myra, Saint Nicholas asked some grain merchants who were bringing shiploads of grain to Constantinople to leave some behind for the starving people. The merchants refused at first because they would be punished if they arrived with less grain, by Nicholas promised them that they would not. In fact, even after giving the people enough grain to feed them for some time, they arrived at their destination with no grain missing. 

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailers, merchants, children, thieves, Greece, Bari, Amsterdam, and many other places. He is shown in paintings in a bishop’s cloak with a miter, and holding three balls of gold, for the three dowries. He is often shown near ships, helping children or sailors. His relics are found in Bari, Italy.