St Nicholas was a real person who was born to a wealthy family in Lycia, Asia Minor (now known as Turkey) sometime between 270 and 280 AD. He was orphaned at an early age and grew up in a monastery becoming one of the youngest priests ever at the age of 17. He travelled to Palestine and Egypt before returning to Lycia to become Bishop of Myra.
Nicholas was a very generous man, known for his charity and wisdom, who gave away his wealth to those in need. He would often go out at night, disguised in a hooded cloak, to leave gifts of money, clothing or food for the poor and underprivileged.
He died on 6 December 340 and was buried in the church in Myra. After his death he was canonised, becoming the patron saint of Greece, Russia, children, scholars, merchants, sailors and travellers.
In 1087 religious soldiers from Italy took the remains of St Nicholas back to Bari in southern Italy where they built a church in honour of him - the Basilica of San Nicola. This greatly increased his popularity in Europe, with pilgrims from all over the world coming to visit his shrine. Each of them took his legend back to their native countries where, as his fame spread, it took on the characteristics of each country. One thing remained common to all however, and that was the traditional image of the Bishop's mitre, long flowing robes, red cape and white beard.
There are many legends surrounding St Nicholas, the most famous of which tells how he gave bags of gold to three poor sisters for their dowries, throwing them down the chimney where they landed in some stockings which had been hung up by the fire to dry. This gave rise to the custom of giving gifts on his feast day (6 December), a practice which is still followed in the Netherlands and Germany where children leave their shoes out on St Nicholas Eve and hope that they will be filled with sweets and gifts the next morning. Elsewhere this has been incorporated into Christmas due to his identification with Santa Claus - a corruption of his Dutch name of 'Sinter Klaas'.
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