While the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve is more widely associated with the bringing of gifts to children, around the world children are more likely to anticipate the coming of St. Nicholas on his feast day, December 6. It's true that in the post World War II era, the Americanized Santa came to Europe as troops in red Santa suits gave gifts of toys and foods to children in the war ravaged areas.
But the tradition of St. Nicholas bringing small gifts, fruits or nuts and special St. Nicholas cookies, as well as the origin of the American Santa, dates back to the third century origins of the real Nicholas. Nicholas was a wealthy many who lost his parents to an epidemic when he was still young. He used his wealth to share with those in need, later becoming Bishop of Myra. He was widely known for his generosity and out of his story came the tradition of giving. He was at one point exiled and imprisoned for his faith by the Roman Emperor. He died on December 6, 343 AD and that date became St. Nicholas Day.
Because he was recognized as a saint long the cannonization process in the Roman Catholic Church was established in the 10th century and before the cannonization of saints became the responsibility of the Pope in the 1100s, there is question as to whether Nicholsas is a "real" saint.
The St. Nicholas Center notes:
It is helpful to remember the Feast of Our Holy Father, Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, the Wonder-worker, is highly ranked and unchanged in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches,. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, is also listed in the Anglican Calendar of Saints and the Lutheran Festivals and Commemorations.
The 1969 Roman Catholic calendar revision did not remove Nicholas when forty saints were taken off. Commemoration of ninety other saints, including Nicholas, was made optional. This means celebration of their feast days is not required for faithful Roman Catholics. Nicholas, with all the saints in this group, is still recognized as a real saint in the Roman Catholic Church. It was even stressed that there is no doubt regarding Nicholas' authenticity.
To celebrate St. Nicholas Day, many children still leave shoes outside their bedroom door on St. Nicholas Eve. St. Nicholas comes in the night to fill them with treats and goodies.
The traditions of St. Nicholas and Santa may have morphed into the giving and receiving of elaborate gifts, but it is important to remember first that Saint Nicholas is real and second, that his legacy is that of giving, not receiving.
St. Nicholas Prayer
Loving God, we thank you for
the example of St Nicholas,
who fed the hungry,
brought hope to the imprisoned,
gave comfort to the lost,
and taught the truth to all.
May we strive to imitate him
by putting you first in all we do.
Give us the courage, love and strength
of St Nicholas, so that, like him,
we may serve you through loving
our brothers and sisters. Amen.
-by Amy Welborn