We know him by many names. Kris Kringle. Pere Noel. Father Christmas. Sinter Klaas. Santa Claus. The names change, but the man in red’s legend is rooted in a single, historical figure. And the real St. Nick is a role model for a life of faith, hope, mercy and love.

Who Was the Real St. Nick?

The story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, a fourth-century saint and bishop of Myra, an ancient city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Born to a wealthy family, Nicholas was orphaned at a young age. Rather than spending his inheritance on a life of luxury, Nicholas sold his possessions and used his inheritance to help the poor and the sick.

As a bishop, Nicholas developed a reputation for ministering to the needy, to children and to people on the margins of society. Following his death in 343 AD, Nicholas was made a saint.

Today, St. Nicholas is revered as the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers and students.

How Did St. Nicholas Become Santa Claus?

Over the years, St. Nicholas evolved into the character we know as Santa Claus thanks to stories describing his work as a defender and advocate for those in need. One of the most representative of these tales is the story of the three daughters.

St. Nicholas and the Three Daughters

According to tradition, there was a poor family in Myra with three daughters. Although the daughters had attracted the attention of suitors, they had no dowries. In those days, no dowries meant that the girls couldn’t marry and would most likely be forced into prostitution. The good bishop took it upon himself to supply their dowries by anonymously slipping bags of gold into stockings that were hanging to dry. By securing their dowries, Nicholas rescued the daughters from poverty and sexual exploitation — and in the process, secured his reputation as a gift-giving saint.

If you’re interested in learning more, the St. Nicholas Center offers a selection of other stories about the real St. Nick and the work he performed on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.

What Can We Learn from the Real St. Nick?

It seems to me that one of the most important lessons we can learn from Nicholas of Myra — the real St. Nick — is that opportunities for acts of kindness and mercy are all around us.

Maybe I’m naive, but I believe that most of us are desperate to become better people. We want to be more generous. We want to be more merciful. But when we see the headlines on CNN, the injustices and problems of the world feel overwhelming. We don’t know where to begin.

It’s not accidental that most of the people the Nicholas helped were from his hometown of Myra. And it’s not accidental that he often expressed his generosity anonymously, without expectation of receiving something in return.

The real St. Nick teaches us that love is local. When we demonstrate generosity, kindness and mercy to the people God puts in our paths, we become reflections of Christ’s love for the world.

Many of the traits we associate with our modern-day Santa Claus were created by Clement Moore in his 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But before there was a right jolly old elf driving eight tiny reindeer on a miniature sleigh, there was the real St. Nick — a flesh-and-blood representation of the Christmas spirit and the embodiment of what can happen when we are willing to share Immanuel (“God with us”) with the people who are all around us.