Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His real name was Saint Nicholas. “Claus” or “Klaas” is the Dutch nickname for “Niklaas” or “Nicholas,” and “Santa” is Spanish for “Saint.” It was Saint Nicholas who also inspired the British “Father Christmas.”
Historically, we we know that Nicholas was the 4th-century Greek bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia (modern-day Demre, Turkey), which was politically part of the Roman province of Asia Minor. Saint Nicholas’s original church (view photos) is currently undergoing restoration.
Madison Avenue and Hollywood have spun all sorts of fantastic tales about jolly ol’ Saint Nick. However, the traditional legends are quintessentially Christian: stories of self-sacrificing love and care. Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift-giving, demonstrating that the greatest generosity is done anonymously, or without regard for compensation.
Perhaps the best-known story about Nicholas concerns his charity toward a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters. Bishop Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through the poor man’s window under the cover of night on three separate occasions, thus enabling the daughters to be married.
In many European countries, a sort of mini-Christmas is celebrated in honor of Saint Nicholas on December 6. It’s a day when children leave their shoes or boots outside their bedroom door and they are filled with small gifts and candy. In some regions, the day includes elaborate festivities to commemorate the goodness and generosity of a great man born centuries ago.
Discover the truth about Santa Claus and learn about Saint Nicholas customs around the world at www.stnicholascenter.org (includes stories, games, and activities for kids).
Anne Frank, in The Diary of a Young Girl, wrote the following letter to her friend Kitty about how her family celebrated Saint Nicholas Day while in hiding in the “Secret Annex” of an old office building:
Monday, December 6, 1943
The closer it got to St. Nicholas Day, the more we all thought back to last year’s festively decorated basket. More than anyone, I thought it would be terrible to skip a celebration this year. After long deliberation, I finally came up with an idea, something funny. I consulted Pim, and a week ago we set to work writing a verse for each person.
Sunday evening at a quarter to eight we trooped upstairs carrying the big laundry basket, which had been decorated with cutouts and bows made of pink and blue carbon paper. On top was a large piece of brown wrapping paper with a note attached. Everyone was rather amazed at the sheer size of the gift. I removed the note and read it aloud:
Once again St. Nicholas Day
Has even come to our hideaway;
It won’t be quite as fun, I fear,
As the happy day we had last year.
Then we were hopeful, no reason to doubt
That optimism would win the bout,
And by the time this year came round,
We’d all be free, and safe and sound.
Still, let’s not forget it’s St. Nicholas Day,
Though we’ve nothing left to give away.
We’ll have to find something else to do:
So everyone please look in their shoe!”
As each person took their own shoe out of the basket, there was a roar of laughter. Inside each shoe was a little paper package addressed to its owner.