Saints of the Holidays — Part 1: St. Nicholas

Did you know the word “holiday” comes from the Old English “haligdæg“, meaning “holy day; Sabbath”? Many holidays have their roots from people and events in the Catholic tradition. In this series, we’ll explore some of the early saints that inspired modern American holidays.

As a child, you might have woken up eagerly the morning of Christmas, to see if Santa Claus has brought you your heart’s desire. But do you know about Saint Nicholas, the real figure on whom the mythical Santa is based?

Nicholas, also known as Nikolaos of Myra, was born to rich parents but orphaned at a young age. He was then adopted by his uncle, the bishop of Patara, and grew up as a very religious child. His uncle ordained him as a priest, and he ultimately rose to become a bishop himself.

Nicholas attended the First Council of Nicaea, a monumental gathering of bishops where crucial issues involving the Christian faith where discussed, debated, and decided. One particularly controversial topic was Arianism, named after the priest Arius who argued that the Father’s divinity exceeded the Son’s. At one point, Nicholas’s fury led him to strike Arius  in the face. Ultimately, the issue was decided against Arius and finalized in the Nicene Creed, which Nicholas endorsed.

Where, then, did his reputation as a gift-giver develop? Nicholas spent his large inheritance on helping those in need, and as a result many legends and folktales have sprung up around his character. One of his most famous tales is detailed below:

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry.

— St. Nicholas Center

Saint Nicholas’s feast day is celebrated on December 6th, on the anniversary of his death in 343 AD.