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St. Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus, is a lot different from today’s image of the fat, jolly, white-bearded guy who brings presents. The stories associated with the saint are darker, but the gifts attributed to him are much more consequential.

His biography is more legend than fact. New Advent says the only historic certainty is that he was bishop of the city of Myra, Lycia (in modern-day Turkey) in the fourth century. Even the year of his death is uncertain. Lives of the Saints author Omer Englebert has his death year as 324, while New Advent says it was 345 or 352. His feast day is December 6.

Yet the legends show why Nicholas, patron of sailors, children, and lots of other people, is beloved from the Netherlands to Russia to Sicily and many places in between. He is credited with many miracles, including bringing murdered boys back to life and thus converting the murderer.

One of the best known legends of Nicholas is associated with generosity. A man could not marry off his three daughters because he was too poor to pay dowries. Desperate, the father was about to sell the girls into prostitution. This is where Nicholas changed the daughters’ lives. He threw a purse laden with gold into the man’s bedchamber through an open window, and days later, his eldest daughter was married. Soon, another bag of gold landed in the man’s room, and his second daughter was married. When it was time for Nicholas to throw in a bag of gold for the third daughter, the father saw him and fell at Nicholas’s feet, repentant and grateful.

What is striking about this tale is that not only did Nicholas save the innocent, he provided the guilty with a means for redemption.

Icon of St. Nicholas

A 1294 Russian icon from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod (From Wikimedia Commons, this work is in the public domain in the United States.)