Today is the feast day of arguably the most famous saint in all of Christendom, St. Nick. The popular view of St. Nick today comes mainly from the pen of Clement Clarke Moore and the artistry of Coke's Haddon Sundblom. But modern makeover aside, our Santa Claus started life as Saint Nicholas in 4th century Asia Minor, where he served the Church as the Bishop of Myra.
So how did St. Nicholas become our modern day Santa Claus?
Saint Nicholas, a deeply pious man with a great love for children, began the habit of gift giving in the Christian tradition. He often would go about at night and leave gold coins in the shoes of his parishioners. Nicholas is credited with several miracles, but perhaps his most famous exploit involved simple charity to help a poor family:
. . . a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him but being too modest to help the man in public (or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.
Besides being the model for our modern day Santa Claus, the real St. Nicholas is venerated as the Patron saint of children as well as of Greece (he's not doing so well on that last one). You can find a detailed description of his life and the many legends surrounding this most famous of Saints here and here. Have a happy Feast of Saint Nicholas everyone.