Agios Nikolaos

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas (or Nikolas, Nikolaos), who was born during the third century in Patara. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Santa does exist… and he’s a Greek. His alternative name, St. Nicholas, reflects his true identity. In Asia Minor at the Greco-Roman city of Myra in about AD 300, a pious young man named Nikolaos was born. He was one of the youngest men to ever become a priest, and his devotion and piety were renowned. So was his practicality. In a time when extra daughters might be sold into slavery if the family couldn’t afford a dowry for them, Nikolaos stepped forward, providing funds to destitute women and men, sometimes to assist in their marriages, other times to just relieve their crippling poverty. Some tales have him throwing bags of gold down the chimney, a precursor of the modern Santa’s travel down the chimney.

Nikolaos later became a bishop, helping to set up the formative Council of Nicaea, which decided many points of orthodox Christian practice. Bishops got to wear dramatic red robes, and images of Nikolaos depict him with a flowing white beard, though others show him clean-shaven. Later, he became a patron saint of Russia, which reaches above the Arctic Circle into traditional Santa territory. While in the Far North, he may have acquired an association with reindeer, as another arctic animal, the wolf, knows him as the patron saint. Or images of him riding on a horse carrying his bishop’s crook may have been misinterpreted as him riding or being accompanied by an antlered animal.

St. Nikolaos became the Dutch Sinterklaas, which then evolved into the modern “Santa Claus”. The most renowned depiction of Santa Claus comes from “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, when all through the house - whoops, sorry - whose original title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.

His “Name Day” is December 6th, the anniversary of his death, which is still a gift-giving date in many countries, though most have conformed to the 25th as the date for distributing largesse.

After Nikolaos’ death, he was made a saint, patron of sailors and children, butchers and bakers, and judges, to name just a few. Part of the saint-making process requires attested miracles, and he accumulated plenty. While those miracles don’t list traveling around the world in a single night, dropping gifts everywhere, once miracles can be managed, why should anything be impossible?

In the present day, St. Nikolaos the Wonderworker of Myra is called upon to preside in spirit over Orthodox meetings seeking to unify the churches.