In Greece they call him Agios Vasilis (Saint Basil) — but in the rest of the world he is the jolly, plump old man with the white beard and the red costume known as Santa Claus who brings presents to children all over the world.
There are many permutations of the modern figure of Santa Claus, such as the Dutch Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). However, the fascinating story of the real Saint Nicholas goes back to the 4th century and the Lycian town of Myra, known as Demre today, in Turkey.
The figure of the Christian bishop Nicholas of Myra, famous for his gift-giving which later made him known as Saint Nicholas, is not fully-substantiated historically. The earliest written accounts of Saint Nicholas date from nearly 500 years after his life, and his biography was first written in the 13th century.
At that time, Myra was a Byzantine Greek province in Anatolia. Nicholas of Myra was indeed a bishop there and he became renowned for his devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ. He was a representative at the famous Council of Nicaea, the very first ecumenical council, called by Emperor Constantine in the year 325 A.D.
One of the major controversies discussed there was Arianism, in which the divinity of Christ was disputed. Legend has it that St. Nicholas crossed the floor and slapped Bishop Arias, the originator of the controversial idea, across the face! True or not, the legend has persisted since that time.
Of course, St. Nicholas became best known for his generous gifts to the poor. Legend also has it that Bishop Nicholas gave gold coins as dowries to the three daughters of a poor, pious Christian man so that they wouldn’t be forced to become prostitutes to survive.
In 1087, the Italian city of Bari mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian saint and procure his remains. The reliquary of Saint Nicholas, containing his bones, was captured by Italian sailors and all the spoils of that raid, including the relics, were taken to Bari, where they are kept to this day.
With the relics now in the West, the story of Saint Nicholas and the legends accompanying him spread like wildfire throughout Western Europe. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany, the saint was portrayed as a bearded bishop in red canonical robes.
Saint Nicholas later became the patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children, to pawnbrokers (presumably since he gave away the gold coins). He is the patron saint of Sicily, Greece and Russia and also serves as the patron saint of the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow.
He is commemorated and revered among Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Christians.
In Greece, Saint Nicholas is best known as the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, ships, islands and all cities with harbors, just as Myra had. The feast day of St. Nicholas is on December 6th, the day when the beloved bishop is reported to have died (in the year 342 A.D.). The proximity of this date to Christmas is perhaps one reason why he has become so closely associated with it.
According to Greek folklore, Saint Nicholas was a professional sailor who grew tired of the sea and its terrors, and decided to live ashore. He then took an oar and began walking inland, looking for a place where the people would not know what an oar was.
Finally he reached a place where people described his oar as just a piece of lumber, and upon that spot, Nicholas decided to stay and become a hermit.
Saint Basil of Caesarea, who lived from A.D. 329-379, shares a very similar story to that of St. Nicholas. A contemporary of Nicholas, Basil was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, also in modern-day Turkey.
Basil was known for his care for the poor and underprivileged, and was extremely generous. Legend has it that tax collectors once overtaxed the people to the extent that they were forced to hand over all their jewelry to the authorities.
Basil declared that this was unjust, and forced the tax collectors to give him the jewelry so he could give it back to the people. Of course, at that point it was impossible to determine which jewelry belonged to whom.
So he came up with the novel idea to bake cakes, with the jewelry placed inside them, and distribute the cake slices amongst the populace. Each person received a piece of the cake with jewelry baked inside it, and the wealth was thereby distributed back to the people.
Much like St. Benedict in the West, St. Basil established wide-ranging guidelines for monastic life. He died on January 1, 379, and Greeks all over the world honor Saint Basil (“Agios Vasilis”) on that day. Gifts are exchanged on that day, rather than on Dec. 6th or 25th, to remember St. Basil’s ingenious method of giving back to the people.