The true story of Santa Claus began with a man named Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. Today Patara is located on the southern coast of Turkey but at that time it was considered part of Greece. Nicholas’ wealthy parents raised him to be a devout Christian. They died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still very young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a very young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity, especially to those in need and small children.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, which is where the Bible as we know it today was put together.
Nicholas died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. There a unique relic, called manna, formed upon his grave. This liquid substance is said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas.
In his honor, December 6th became a day of celebration; St. Nicholas Day. On the Julian calendar, St Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 19. Why the change in dates, I have no idea. Perhaps it is like so many of our other holidays, government changes the date for the people’s convenience.
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life. Some of them like so many other tales developed into folk lore. One old story in particular tells us of a poor man who had three daughters. In those days, a dowry was necessary in order to find a worthy husband. Without it, chances were the old man’s daughters would end in slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in the old man’s home which provided each one of his daughters with the needed dowry. An extension of the same story tells us the bags of gold were tossed through an open window into the home. They landed in daughter’s stockings hanging upon the shelf above the fireplace. This story eventually led to the Christmas custom of children hanging their stockings with hopes of receiving gifts from Saint Nicholas (or Santa Claus).
Being a teacher of history and mythology I have always loved discovering exactly what stories are true and/or where they originated from. I hope I have shed some light into the question, why do we hang stockings on the fireplace during the Christmas season.