Saint Nicholas was a very real person who was born as the only child to wealthy parents around 270 A.D. in what is now Turkey. Upon the death of his parents while he was yet relatively young, he inherited a rather large sum of money. It is said that he was already a religious boy and that soon after the death of his parents, he dedicated his life to serving Jesus Christ.
He became very well known for his love of children and generosity to the poor. His method of giving was generally more in the form of throwing a bag of money into a window, or putting gold coins in the stockings of the needy as they hung out to dry.
There are many legends that go with the type of person St. Nicholas was. One of the better-documented accounts of his generosity tells of a family who was starving with no money for food much less money for a dowry so the father could marry off his three daughters. The father was considering sending at least the oldest out to earn money as a prostitute. When the young Nicholas heard of this, he went during the night to a window of the home and threw in a bag of gold coins. In the morning they found the gold; they now had money for food and a dowry as well. The daughter kept her honor.
Because there were two other sisters, the young Nicholas threw in two more bags of coins on two other occasions. By the third time, the father wanted to know whom the benefactor was and watched until finally he caught the lad after he threw the third bag of money. It is reported that Nicholas was very upset that someone knew of his acts of charity and made the father promise not to tell anyone who had helped his family.
Eventually he became the bishop of the church in Myra where he was known for more great acts of charity. One legend said that some children were captured by a group of pirates that threatened to take the children to be sold as slaves if some large amount of money was not given to them. This bishop is said to have gotten the money himself and given it to the pirates to save the children.
During this period of history, the Romans were still persecuting Christians with their infamous cruelties including throwing them to the lions, etc. Although the worst persecution of the Christians had just taken place about 250 A.D. under the reign of Decius Trajan, there had been relative peace in the later part of the century. But in 303 A.D., the last of the great Roman persecutions began. The Roman Emperor Diocletian was persuaded again to suppress the Christian religion. Those who would not give up following the Lord, Jesus Christ, and turn over their sacred books would be either killed or put in prison. Those who went to prison were cruelly tortured.
Many great men suffered and died in defense of their faith in Christ. St. Nicholas was among these bishops.
This part of Saint Nicholas is not legend, it is part of history. While he lived in a world where apostasy from Christianity was all around him, he stood for what he believed. Saint Nicholas was one of the few who survived Diocletian's torture chambers. This is where he gained his title Saint; for those who did survive were called "saints" by the people in honor of their great devotion to Jesus Christ.
Saint Nicholas was freed when the new Emperor Constantine came to power. It is said that as he reentered Myra, the people flocked around him in his honor. He may have been beaten and tortured, but he was not broken. He went on to serve the people for many more years giving service and adding to the legends of his great goodness. To me this is a story of a man who did his best to serve his God and apply the principles taught by Jesus Christ. It is one that is worthy of being pasted down to our children.
In Germany Saint Nicholas is still called by that name, not Santa Claus. He is a priest with a normal sized body who wears a plain robe, without fur, that is not necessarily red. He has no magical powers or magical reindeer and elves -- he rides a donkey that he must coax along. Saint Nicholas day is December 6th, the day that the real Saint Nicholas died. On the night of the December 5th is when he leaves his presents and the children put their shoes by the door for him. Because this Saint Nicholas is more human, he doesn't come down the chimney nor can he put his finger to the side of his nose and go back up to the roof top. December 25th and 26th (they have two days for Christmas) is a time only for the celebration of the birth of Christ.
We have adopted many of these German customs. We tell our children about Saint Nicholas rather than Santa Claus and we celebrate his example on the 6th. I explain that it is the example and spirit of generosity that lives on. We try to give our children opportunities to play this secret role of giving to other families so that they too can feel of this spirit.
I believe that as Christians ourselves we should be promoting a Christian emphasis for the holiday. Statistics show that only 21% consider this a time to think about the birth of the Savior. For most people in America, Santa Claus is the only level celebrated. But even Santa Claus is a thread for these people back to Christianity. Perhaps we can spread the word of who this man was and help them understand that if the real Saint Nicholas were here to celebrate with us, he would tell us to look to the Son of God. I believe he would also be reminding us that we are celebrating a Holy Day and that this is the original meaning of the word Holiday.