To know the story(-ies) of Santa Claus we first need to recount the story of St. Nicholas, who was born in the village of Patara (in the southern coast of present day Turkey) way back in the third century. He was born to wealthy parents who were devout Christians. Nicholas imbibed his parents' faith, and when they passed away in an epidemic, he gave away all his worldly possessions to the poor and needy.
While he was still young, Nicholas dedicated his life in the service of the Lord and was made Bishop of Myra. Throughout the land and across seas he gradually came to be known as a compassionate saint, a protector of children, and a savior of sailors.
"Santa Claus" is an American phonetic alteration of the German Sankt Niklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas. Over the years, many legends and stories have been told of St. Nicholas' kind deeds for those in need. One such story tells of a poor man who had three daughters. It was difficult to marry off daughters without having something to give in dowry in those days.
On three different occasions, the poor man found a bag of gold left in stockings or shoes, which he would leave near the fireplace to dry. The mysterious gifts of gold provided him with the required dowry for the marriage of his three daughters. This story also led to the custom of hanging stockings or shoes in anticipation of gifts from St. Nicholas or Santa Claus.
The first story that shows St. Nicholas as the protector of children goes like this: Many years ago on St. Nicholas' feast day when the people of Myra were busy in festivities, a band of Arab pirates came into town.
They robbed some valuables from the church, and on their way out of the town, they snatched away a little boy, Basilios, to be used as the king's slave. For one year the poor Basilios worked as the cupbearer for the king; he would bring wine to the king in a beautiful golden cup every time the king called upon him.
Back home in Myra his parents grieved his absence and prayed for his well-being. On the next St. Nicholas feast day as Basilios was preparing to serve the king like usual, he was whisked up into the air by St. Nicholas himself and was carried back to his home in Myra. He was still holding the king's golden cup in his hands when he was reunited with his bewildered parents. St. Nicholas feast day, celebrated on December 6th, is still the main day for gift-giving in most parts of Europe.
There are other legends that portray St. Nicholas as the protector of sailors. One such story tells of the time when St. Nicholas embarked on the Holy Journey, seeking to walk on the same path Jesus walked on many years ago. When he was returning by sea from the Holy Land, a great storm brew up and started flailing the ship. He silently prayed to God and within minutes the storm ceased.
Sailors carried his stories to far-away lands, and many St. Nicholas Chapels were built on seaports across the world. His tomb at Myra is a famous pilgrimage for believers. He is known for his generosity and kindness, the protection he gives to voyagers at sea and to children in need. He is the gift-giver and the secret helper of all those who believe in him -- be it as the reverent St. Nicholas or as the chubby, jolly, American Santa Claus.