For all of the chatter about St. Nicholas this time of year, you'd think everybody knew who he was.

Not so, according to the priest of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole, Alaska. He asked his parishioners during the feast day of St. Nicholas earlier this month "if they knew when the original Santa Claus was born," and most people among the 340-family congregation acted "just like students in a classroom" who can't answer the teacher's question.

"They were keeping their heads down so they were not making eye contact with me."

Father Ross Tozzi told the Deseret Morning News this week that even in the city of North Pole — which is located in the center of the state instead of the top of the world, like its geographic namesake — "some people are and others aren't" familiar with the story of the real St. Nicholas. He suspects that's not unlike most of American Christianity, with the story of the Middle Eastern saint whose philanthropy helped inspire the modern incarnation of Santa Claus being obscured or even forgotten.

"It's just like the story of Christmas. You tell it each year, and over time it kind of just gets into people's memory. That's what I was doing, telling the story of St. Nicholas in question-and-answer form" on Dec. 6, the official feast day of St. Nicholas. While some more modern paintings of the saint picture him with white hair and a beard, wearing a red religious vestment lined with white, Father Tozzi said the icons at his church don't appear that way.

"There are different styles, but the image of Santa Claus that's familiar today to people has more to do with Coca-Cola ads than it does the bishop from the fourth century."

Indeed, the patron saint not only of children but of sailors, bakers and pawnbrokers, among others, St. Nicholas' historical account is far overshadowed during the Christmas season by author Clement Moore's version, described in his world-renowned poem, "The Night Before Christmas." Part of that may be due to the fact that many legends — but relatively few verifiable facts — grew up around discussion of St. Nicholas from the time of his birth in the fourth century.

According to the section on "Saints" at the Catholic Online Web site, St. Nicholas was born at Patara in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor in what is modern-day Turkey. Born into wealth, he is believed to have lived a young life of piety and was eventually chosen as bishop of Myra, the capital.

"In that station he became famous by his extraordinary piety and zeal and many astonishing miracles. The Greek histories of his life agree that he suffered imprisonment" and was even tortured for the faith.. He died at Myra and was buried in his cathedral."

Many accounts attribute charitable acts toward children to him, garnering him a reputation for secret gift-giving. One legend in particular likely underlies his current reputation as Nikolaus in Germany and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, where children's boots are filled with gold-foil covered chocolate coins on Christmas Eve.

His parents are believed to have died when he was a young man, leaving him a sizable inheritance that he turned to charitable causes. One story notes a citizen of Patara had lost all his money but still had to support three daughters who could not find husbands because of their poverty. Just as the desperate father was preparing to give his first daughter into prostitution, St. Nicholas is reported to have thrown gold coins by night into the open window of the man's house, saving his daughter from ruin.

"Here was a dowry for the eldest girl, and she was soon duly married. At intervals Nicholas did the same for the second and third; at the last time the father was on the watch, recognized his benefactor and overwhelmed him with his gratitude," says the Web site account.

The history of celebrations surrounding Christmas and St. Nicholas "is complex and reflects the conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a Catholic saint, Martin Luther replaced the Catholic festivity with a 'Christkind' (Christ child) celebration on Christmas Eve," according to Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia.

In celebration of the real St. Nicholas, Father Tozzi said he handed out gold-foiled covered chocolate coins during the children's Mass on Dec. 6, urging them to share the candy with other parishioners as their patron saint had done.

Phyllis Techlin, principal of St. Nicholas Catholic School in Freedom, Wis., said unlike many Americans, all of the students at her school know St. Nicholas as a "good and kind bishop that lived during the early church and inherited riches, which he gave to the poor."

As for Santa Claus, "most of the time we stay away from him. . . . Our Christmas (in America) has become so commercialized that we really stay away from that. We figure they get enough of him outside the doors."

For more information on the historical St. Nicholas, see www.catholic.org/saints or www.stnicholascenter.org.


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