St. Nicholas depicted ascending to heaven. His red bishop's miter and robe, along with his dedication to children, inspired the story of Santa Claus.
CNN  — 

Every year on December 6th, many children across Europe and the US will wake up and eagerly dash to their holiday stockings, or even their shoes, to see what treats St. Nick dropped into them.

For the families who observe the Christian feast day of Saint Nicholas, it’s an annual tradition for the parents to play the role of St. Nick on the night of December 5th and fill their children’s stockings – or shoes – with candy, fruit or even small toys.

You might be wondering, isn’t this St. Nicholas the same person as Santa Claus, who delivers gifts the night of December 24th?

While he inspired the legend of Santa Claus, the St. Nicholas celebrated on December 6th has his own inspiring story of service to others, especially children and those in need.

St. Nicholas’s life in the third and fourth centuries

Nicholas was born to Greek parents near the end of the third century in the coastal city of Patara, in a region that is part of present day southwest Turkey. He was orphaned as a child and is said to have used his inheritance to help the poor and sick.

The Rev. John D. Laurance, an associate professor emeritus of liturgical history and theology at Marquette University, said the loss of Nicholas’ parents naturally gave him a softness for children.

He was devoted to Christ at a young age and became a monk. Nicholas eventually served as the bishop of Myra, now the Turkish city Demre, and was extremely popular.

“He was a father to his flock, and took care of orphans. He was especially good to poor families,” Laurance said.

One popular story tells how St. Nicholas helped an impoverished father and his three daughters. The father didn’t have any money for their marriage dowries, which in that era was necessary to wed. Without being able to marry, his daughters could fall into prostitution.

When Nicholas heard of their plight, he secretly came by their house one night and threw three bags of gold coins into their window, ensuring the girls would be taken care of.

Some versions of this story say the gold either landed in stockings or shoes drying near the fireplace, leading to later traditions of children leaving these items out for St. Nick to fill.

Death and everlasting popularity

It’s believed that St. Nicholas died on December 6, 343, and the date is observed as his feast day annually. His popularity continued grow even after his death, likely because of his service to the poor and children and the miracles attributed to him, Laurence said.

Nicholas became the most popular nonbiblical saint in the pre-modern Christian church, and more churches have been named for him than for any other saint except Mary, the mother of Jesus. St. Nicholas is recognized as the patron saint of children and sailors, as well as the patron saint of Greece and Russia, along with a number of cities.

Early St. Nicholas Day traditions and the evolution of Santa Claus

As St. Nicholas’ popularity spread throughout Europe in the years after his death, people would turn to their children to celebrate his feast in their honor, Laurance said. Once the Protestant Reformation took hold in the 1500s, the celebration of saints was seen as idolatrous and the practice declined in Europe.

However, some countries kept the practice of celebrating St. Nicholas alive. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas was known as “Sinterklaas,” a Dutch variant of his name, and he was depicted as a tall man in a long, red clerical robe wearing a red miter, or bishop’s hat. Dutch children would leave shoes out for Sinterklaas the night of December 5th, and in the morning check to see what gifts he left for them.

Dutch colonists later brought the story of Sinterklaas to the American colonies in the 17th century. The English-speaking colonists in America adopted the story, calling Sinterklaas “Santa Claus.”

Santa Claus would eventually merge with the Christmas holiday, partly because of a series of popularized poems. By the early 20th century, Santa Claus had traded in his red robe for a red fur suit and began climbing down chimneys on Christmas Eve to deliver gifts to children.

Modern St. Nicholas Day celebrations

Today in Europe, St. Nicholas Day is still celebrated, particularly in parts of northern Europe and German-speaking regions. Children are given treats and gifts, and many will leave letters for St. Nicholas, as well as carrots or grass for his donkey he is said to arrive on.

Some children are given gold foiled chocolate coins and oranges, symbolizing the bags of gold St. Nicholas gave to the three impoverished sisters for their marriage dowries.

St. Nicholas Day is so popular in Belgium that the country’s health minister wrote a letter to citizens this year assuring them their beloved St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, is allowed to visit homes the evening of December 5th despite the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. However, he noted that St. Nicholas should practice social distancing and wear a mask.

In the United States, St. Nicholas Day is especially popular in cities and regions with large German-American populations, such as Milwaukee. In the lead-up to the holiday, some candy stores in Milwaukee have signs reminding shoppers that St. Nick visits the night of December 5th. The holiday is also celebrated in US cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Whether or not you are hanging a stocking or putting a shoe out for St. Nick this year, perhaps we can all take a lesson from him and be more giving to others.