St. Nicholas lived in Myra, a city in the province of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) during the fourth century. His parents died when he was a teenager and left him with quite a bit of money. Nicholas then went to live with his uncle, who was a priest.
At some point, Nicholas became aware of a man who had three daughters, but no money to pay their dowries so they could be married. On three separate occasions, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold into the girls’ stockings hanging by the fire, thus providing them their dowries. On the third night, the father caught Nicholas delivering the gold. Nicholas asked the father not to tell anyone about what he had done.
Eventually, Nicholas became the bishop of Myra. He continued performing generous acts, and had a special affinity for children, sailors and those who were falsely accused.
What about those traditions always associated with St. Nick, such as oranges and candy canes? Well, the oranges are an adaptation of the bag of gold that Nicholas threw into the young women’s stockings. And, according to many stories, candy canes are supposed to represent crosiers, or bishop’s staffs, as bishops are the shepherds for God’s people.
As word of St. Nicholas’s charity and giving spread, the concept of secretly giving gifts to others grew and took on a life of its own. As people traveled to new lands, they took the concept of the saintly gift-giver with them. Over time, St. Nicholas transformed into our modern-day Santa Claus.
The Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated annually on December 6.