Many of us know the mythological version of St. Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus. While Santa isn't entirely and exclusively based on St. Nicholas, a significant amount of the legends and beliefs of the person of Santa Claus do come from the stories in St. Nicholas' life.
St. Nicholas, whose feast day we celebrate in two and a half weeks on December 6, lived in the late 3rd century to the middle of the 4th century. He was born in what is today southern Turkey, in the village of Patara, to wealthy parents who raised him to be a devout Christian. He worked his whole life helping the poor in whatever ways he could, using all of his inheritance to give to the needy.
As bishop of Myra, he became known for his devotion to helping the poor, for his love of children, and for his concern for sailors. He was exiled and put into prison for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians in the early 4th century. Nicholas died between the years 345-352 or so, on December 6.
The popularity of St. Nicholas began almost immediately upon his death, and devotion to him was carried to many countries and areas. His relics, which had been in Myra where he died, were taken and moved to Bari, Italy in the 11th century. Devotion to him increased a great deal in Europe once his relics were moved to Italy. Vladimir I of Russia was baptized in Constantinople and subsequently returned to Russia with the stories of St. Nicholas. Devotion to him grew quickly in Russia, and it didn't take long for St. Nicholas to be the most beloved saint in Russia.
In the Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles, and Belgium, the tradition of the celebration of Sinterklaas is alive and well, celebrated on December 5 or 6. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas' Eve is a chief occasion for gift-giving, and presents are often accompanied by a poem from St. Nicholas.
In some Catholic countries, St. Nicholas examines children on their prayer and catechism to ensure that they are being good children with their faith as well as elsewhere in their lives. He tells the children to continue to be good and obedient.
To celebrate St. Nicholas in your own family, you can read an account of his life and good works on the morning of his feast day, to remind everyone from the beginning of the day why St. Nicholas is so loved and honored. Having a special feast for dinner in honor of St. Nicholas reminds children that he deserves to be remembered and specially honored because of how kind and giving he was in his life. It encourages children to be as giving in their lives as he was in his, making them realize that life should be about giving and not receiving. Giving gifts on December 6 helps enable the focus of Christmas Day to remain on Jesus instead of being so exclusively on presents.
If you're feeling ambitious, you could throw a party in honor of St. Nicholas, as we are doing at Aquinas and More.
For more ideas on how to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, read Catholic Culture's suggestions. The St. Nicholas Center, where you can find a great account of his life and many stories surrounding him, also has many ideas, including activities and recipes to make the day even more special.
We also have a number of resources at Aquinas and More to help you and your children learn more about St. Nicholas, including books such as The Legend of St. Nicholas, which includes beautiful imagery related to the saint, and Saint Nicholas: The Story of the Real Santa Claus; the DVD Nicholas: The Boy Who Became Santa; Legends of St. Nicholas, a CD of chant and polyphony about the saint; holy cards, ornaments, and more.