As the holiday season begins, cookies, reindeer and Santa Claus will soon be on everyone’s mind.
Before Santa Claus, there was St. Nicholas.
Christians celebrate St. Nicholas Day Dec. 6, the day he died in A.D. 343, according to the St. Nicholas Center.
Florin Curta, a University of Florida history professor, said St. Nicholas was known for performing miracles. Beliefs are especially strong in Bari and Venice, both located in Italy, because these are where St. Nicholas’ remains are located.
“As bishop of Myra, he gained a reputation for his generosity toward the poor and the afflicted, which often took the form of secret gift giving,” Curta said. “The legend has it that Nicholas would leave coins in people’s shoes.”
In the East, he is known for being a wonder and a miracle worker. In the West, he is recognized as a patron of children, judges, paupers, sailors and more.
Dana Edwards, a 21-year-old journalism and history major, said she celebrated St. Nicholas Day in elementary school. She and her classmates would leave their shoes outside the classroom and presents would appear during lunch.
“I liked learning about the history of Christmas and how the celebration was actually a Pagan ritual utilized by Christians to share their faith,” Edwards said. “I like to disprove the thought that Santa isn’t real because St. Nicholas actually existed.”
Curta discussed how St. Nicholas is the model for Santa Claus, who the Protestant Dutch turned into a secularized grandfather figure during the 19th century.
“In America, the golden age of Santa Claus started with Washington Irving’s stories, which may have been partially based on the Dutch Sinterklaas,” Curta said. “Santa Claus’ flying wagon appears in Irving’s 1812 ‘A History of New York.’”
St. Nicholas is celebrated in various places around the United States, especially in Dutch, German and Ukranian communities.
In Albania, on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, people light a candle and refrain from eating meat until after midnight when roasted lamb and pork are served to guests, according to Curta. In the Netherlands, children leave their shoes in front of the chimneys on Dec. 5. Some leave carrots or hay for St. Nicholas’ horse.
“I think this tradition is an excellent way to teach some history lessons to children and help their creative minds,” Edwards said. “I am considering continuing these traditions with my future children.”