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The man venerated as St. Nicholas by both the Roman and Orthodox Catholic churches served as the Bishop of Myra, in what now is Turkey, in the 4th Century. Stories passed down through history tell of a man who was generous to the poor with a deserved reputation as a protector of children.
In Europe -- especially in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland -- the anniversary of his death, Dec. 6, is widely observed, although it is not generally considered part of the Christmas celebration. On Dec. 5, St. Nicholas Eve, gifts are sometimes left for children -- and fruit and nuts are placed on window sills or in wooden shoes as a gift for the saint.
In America, the story is different -- thanks to Washington Irving. The traditions of St. Nicholas Day probably came across the Atlantic with Dutch and German immigrants. But in 1809, Irving published his satirical Knickerbocker's History of New York, and he reimagined St. Nicholas as a pipe-smoking Dutch immigrant with an elfish demeanor. Americanized legends of St. Nicholas grew from Irving's stories and eventually morphed through the poetry of Clement Clarke Moore and the drawings of Thomas Nast into the American version of Santa Claus.
You can learn more about St. Nicholas and Santa Claus from the St. Nicholas Center.