How did a bishop who lived in the late 200s through the mid-300s in what is modern Turkey become the jolly fat guy dressed in red we see each Christmas?
In “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus,” Adam C. English (no relation to this columnist) tries to sort out the facts about the historical figure of Nicholas of Myra.
English first points out that most Nicholas biographers, even a former U.S. secretary of education, have confused two saints with the same name.
English spends much of the book cutting apart the stories, so much of the book is also about St. Nicholas of Sion, who died about 200 years later.
Also, little is known about Nicholas of Myra, so much of the book is filled with a look at what was going on at the time, or at how certain groups came to call Nicholas their patron saint.
Two stories connect Nicholas to our Christmas celebration.
One of the earliest known stories about St. Nicholas of Myra is a tale of giving.
English says Nicholas’ parents died when he was 18, leaving him with great wealth. He sought ways to use the money to help others.
A neighbor fell onto rough times and felt he would have to sell his daughters into prostitution.
Nicholas placed gold coins into a purse and during the night, threw the bag into the man’s home. It was enough to provide a dowry for the oldest daughter.
Nicholas did the same thing for each of the daughters, each time in secret, but the father sat up for many nights the last time to meet his daughters’ benefactor.
The second thing connecting Nicholas to Christmas is his feast date.
English said that while the year of Nicholas’ death is uncertain, most people say that he died on Dec. 6, which is celebrated as his feast day.
The feast day also has a symbolic timing. The sixth of each month was a day devoted to the Greek goddess Artemis. English recalls stories about Nicholas destroying the temple of Artemis.
That timing, along with other stories about Nicholas’ generosity and his connection to children, are part of the beginnings of the legend of Santa Claus.
Send ideas and comments to Leila Pitchford-English, The Advocate, P.O. Box 588, Baton Rouge, LA 70821-0588 or by email to