St. Nicholas Day takes place long before Christmas
Believe it or not, St. Nicholas Day is not actually on Christmas. St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on Dec. 6, a full three weeks before. How the historical St. Nicholas became Santa Claus is a bit of a mystery.
St. Nicholas of Myra
St. Nicholas, also Nicholas or Nikolaos of Myra, lived from 270 AD to 346 AD and was the Bishop of Myra, in modern day Turkey. Nicholas was known for being incredibly kind and also generous, especially when it came to gift giving. According to legend, he would often secretly leave gifts, often in the form of coins left in people’s shoes. There are also various stories about St. Nicholas providing dowries to families too poor to provide one. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, fishermen, archers, thieves, pawnbrokers and children. The Eastern Orthodox church holds him in very high esteem, and he is listed as the patron saints of numerous countries. During The Crusades, his remains were taken to Italy to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, and his tomb has resided in Bari ever since.
From Saint to Santa
How Saint Nicholas was made into the modern Santa Claus likely is due to the fact that he was known for leaving presents anonymously, like coins or sweets, in people’s shoes and especially those of children. The tradition became for people to give gifts on St. Nicholas Day, with the emphasis being on gifts for kids. Somewhere along the line he was absorbed into the mythical figure of Sinterklaas (likely due to the association with leaving gifts for children) and other cultural equivalents, thus becoming Santa Claus.
Like any saint’s day, celebration and observances vary. Some countries place high importance on observing St. Nicholas, and others don’t. Areas with historically large communities of European expatriates, especially from Germany, Belgium, Holland and Eastern Europe, will have a St. Nicholas Day observance of some sort, like leaving their shoes out in their homes tonight and finding them filled with sweets in the morning.