The fat, jolly Christmas character that children love has origins of a much different nature. Santa Claus is also known as Saint Nicholas. The latter name is more closely related to the original person from whom the legend is derived.
St. Nicholas was actually a real person. He was a priest who lived in the 4th century A.D. in what is now modern Turkey. He was the Bishop of Myra, and he grew up during a harsh time when Christians were still being persecuted.
His parents died when he was a young boy, so his uncle took him in. His uncle happened to be a bishop. He raised Nicholas and groomed him to become a church leader, then he ordained Nicholas as a priest when he came of age.
Nicholas traveled to Myra when they were in the midst of electing a new bishop, and the legend states that they saw him as a sign from God, and they immediately chose him to be their bishop. The Romans got wind of this, and they imprisoned and tortured Nicholas. Fortunately, Emperor Constantine declared an edict that granted Christians their religious freedom, and Nicholas and other Christians were then released from their prisons.
Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra shortly afterward, and he was summoned by the Emperor to attend the First Council of Nicaea. Nicholas famously rejected to incorporate the teachings of Arianism into Christianity.
St. Nicholas is famous for his many deeds of generosity, and miracles have been attributed to him. The Catholic and Orthodox churches recognize him as a saint, and he is especially revered in Russia. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, which is one reason why his legend is associated with giving gifts to children on Christmas.
St. Nicholas was known as one of the kindest and most generous people who ever lived. His reputation for gift-giving is what eventually grew into the legend of Santa Claus. Some tales of his generosity include him leaving gold coins to people who left out their shoes as a sign of need. Over time, his persona was influenced by the Norse god Odin and other mythical tales of rewarding or punishing children for their behavior.
The myth of Santa Claus climbing down the chimney has some origins in the story of a man who lived during St. Nicholas’s time. He was too poor to afford a dowry to marry off his daughter. The bishop supposedly dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney, and it fell into the man’s stocking that had been hung up to dry by the fire. After this, the man hid in the evening to see who was doing this, and he eventually spotted Nicholas. The word of the deed traveled around quickly. Soon, anyone who received anonymous gifts assumed it was from Nicholas.
Nicholas became the patron saint of both children and sailors. There is a legend of St. Nicholas calming the seas in answer to the prayers of sailors who encountered a storm. The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch pronunciation of St. Nicholas: “Sinterklaas.”