Christmas Series: Santa Claus

History of Santa Claus

Saint or Elf?

Bill Petro
4 min readDec 6, 2023


St. Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák. Image: Wikipedia

December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day.” The name Santa Claus is a kind of a contraction for Saint Nicholas. The German name Sankt Nikolaus can be pronounced San’t(a) ni-KLOuse (sounding like house.)

Origin of St. Nicholas

He was born in the late 3rd century, perhaps in A.D. 270. Nicholas became a bishop in Greece and gained distinction in the councils of the church. He was especially famed for unexpected gifts and later associated with the giving of presents during the season at the end of the year.

“I am Nicholas, a sinner, Nicholas, servant of Christ Jesus.”

the old saint would say. He was imprisoned during the great persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 303 but freed by the decree of Emperor Constantine. After that, he served as Bishop in Myra for another thirty years.

He died on December 6, about 343, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is now held on that day.

St. Nicholas Battles Heresy

St. Nicholas slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Image: Wikipedia

Nicholas participated in the famous first ecumenical church Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine in 325, where the surprising story is told that he lost his temper and slapped the heretic Arius.

Bad Santa?

Arius was a presbyter from Alexandria who taught that “there was a time when Christ was not,” declaring the Son of God had a different “essence” or “nature” than the Father, denying Christ’s deity. But Nicholas was a dedicated “Trinitarian” and one of the signers of the Nicene Creed that asserted the Trinity: three persons of the same nature. This was the first council where Arius’ teachings were condemned, but it was not the last.

Stories of St. Nicholas

Many other stories are told of his kindness, such as the story of the poor man and his three daughters. To save the girls from being sold into prostitution for want of dowries, St. Nicholas dropped a bag full of gold down…



Bill Petro

Writer, historian, technologist. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel.