Even outlandish family history tales contain a nugget of truth—and so does the story of Santa Claus, the jolly old man who shimmies down chimneys, survives on cookies and milk and leaves presents for good kids (coal for the naughty ones).
The modern myth stems from a real person: Nikolaos of Myra, a Christian saint and Greek Bishop from the 4th century. The Feast of Saint Nicholas (also known as St. Nick’s Day), observed on December 6 in the United States, celebrates Nikolaos.
Saint Nicholas was famous for gift-giving, particularly his rumored reputation for slipping money into shoes. He inspired many to follow in the Saint’s footsteps. Nuns began to celebrate St. Nick’s day by donating food and clothes to the less fortunate.
Saint Nicholas was typically depicted as an older bishop in a red cape with a large, fluffy beard and sparse hair.
Families that celebrate the feast day—especially common in Europe and American areas with rich German heritage—traditionally leave out shoes or stockings for St. Nick to fill with coins, oranges, nuts and candy. For some, the day has evolved into a “mini-Christmas” on which children wake up to small toys.
Some stories of Saint Nicholas didn’t make it into modern Santa Claus lore. One macabre tale told in a French song relates the saint’s visit to a town struck by hunger. He discovered a butcher who had slaughtered three children. Saint Nicholas brought the children back to life. Not very Christmasy, but the sentiment behind the legend does live on in Saint Nicholas’ renown as the patron saint of children.