Always celebrated on 6 December, this day marks the death of Saint Nicholas. In the Orthodox Church, Saint Nicholas Day falls on 19 December.
Saint Nicholas was a Greek Bishop of Myra (now part of modern-day Turkey) in the fourth century. Nicholas was born to wealthy parents who died in an epidemic while he was still young. A devout Christian, he gave his inheritance to the poor and needy, gaining a reputation for secret gift giving.
One of the legends surrounding Saint Nicholas concerns three sisters. Their father was so poor that he was unable to pay any dowry for their marriage. Without any prospect of finding husbands, this meant the sisters may have been forced into prostitution. Nicholas wanted to help the family, but didn't want to attract any attention to himself, so he went to their house one night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window.
In one version of the story, one of the sisters had hung her stockings over the fireplace to dry after washing and one bag of gold fell into the stocking.
Another legend which seems to have a surprising number of variations, involves three children who have been killed and put in barrel with the intention of being eaten, are resurrected by Saint Nicholas. Other legends involved his help is assisting sailors.
Nicholas died on 6 December 343AD in Myra and following his death, Nicholas gained sainthood and because of the legends associated with him, he became the patron saint of Children and Sailors.
As Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, many churches dedicated to him are intentionally built so they can be seen from the coast as landmarks.
In 1087, most of his relics (bones) were taken to Bari, Italy. This is why he is sometimes known as Nikolaos of Bari. His remaining bones were taken to Venice in 1100 by Venetian sailors during the first crusade.
Saint Nicholas' Feast Day became a traditional day for gift giving in most of Western mainland Europe. It remains a popular tradition and for children, receiving presents on Saint Nicholas Day is still a bigger event than Christmas.
Depending on the country, the presents may been given on the evening of Saint Nicholas Eve, 5 December or on 6 December, Saint Nicholas Day.
One view is that getting the presents out of the way early in the Christmas period, helps focus Christmas day itself on the nativity of Christ. Though in Germany and Switzerland, presents are also brought at Christmas by the Christ Child, the infant Jesus.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas is called 'Sinterklass'. He comes each year from Spain in November and gives his presents while riding on a white horse, accompanied by his sidekick, Black Peter.
In Germany, the sidekick is a more sinister figure. Called Krampus, he looks more like the devil and may visit on Saint Nicholas Eve to punish children who have been naughty.
Clearly, the gift giving of Saint Nicholas forms part of the basis of the American Santa Claus, whose name comes from the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass. The tradition of Sinterklass came to the Americas from Dutch settlers and merged with the British tradition of Father Christmas
A German-born, American political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, is credited with the first modern depiction of Santa Claus in the late nineteenth century.