The Rev. Stephen Milton explores the identity of Saint Nicholas and his contribution to our stories of Christmas.

Who is the real Saint Nicholas?
Published On: December 6, 2023

Dec 6th is the feast of Saint Nicholas. Most people know “Saint Nicholas” as another name for Santa Claus. Indeed, his name did get shortened to Santa Claus. But Nicholas was real, and he lived long before anyone dreamed up Father Christmas, St Nick, Kris Kringle, or any of the other names for the guy with the bag. Saint Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the 4th century, in what is now Turkey. He had a congregation, and developed a reputation for miracles, He was known to have appeared in visions to praying sailors, calming storms, and rescuing the drowning. (In the picture above, he is flying over one of those ships.) Saint Nicholas is now the patron saint of sailors.

The reason Saint Nicholas is connected to Christmas is for something he did long before he became a saint. His parents were wealthy Christians who died when he was young. Nicholas inherited their wealth, and legend has it that one day he heard about a neighbour who was too poor to pay for his three daughters’ dowries. The father was going to sell his daughters into prostitution. Nicholas decided to help, but secretly. On three nights, he tossed a bag of gold over the neighbour’s fence (some versions say the gold went down the chimney, or landed in stockings or shoes). Each daughter was able to marry thanks to their secret benefactor. But the neighbour wanted to know who had helped them, so he stayed up one night, and waited to hear for the sound of third bag of gold. He confronted Nicholas on the street, and asked why he did it all in secret. Nicholas replied that he wanted no credit. Indeed, in his legends, he would give credit to God for all his miracles.

On this feast day of Saint Nicholas, may we remember that an anonymous gift is not lesser, but greater. It prompts the receiver to see the universe as a benevolent place, a view which is so hard to believe at times, that it makes one gift into two. Happy Saint Nicholas Day!

—Rev. Stephen Milton came to Lawrence Park Community Church in Toronto in 2019, after decades of work as a documentary filmmaker. His passion is creating new ways to explore spirituality, appealing to people who aren’t interested in regular Sunday morning church services.

The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.

Blog Theme