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Who is Saint Nicholas?

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(Read caption) The tradition of Santa Claus gained popularity with the Dutch population of New York, says writer Adam C. English.

R: Doug Strickland/The Texarkana Gazette/AP

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Santa Claus. Saint Nick. Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. Are they all the same bearded guy with a "little round belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly?"

Not exactly.

As Catholics and other Christians know well, for his name is on hundreds of their churches, there really was a Saint Nicholas. And he really was a generous gift-giver. But he didn't have all those accoutrements, like the red-and-white outfit, the reindeer and the elves.

So how did Saint Nicholas become Father Christmas?

Adam C. English, associate professor of religion at North Carolina's Campbell University, explores that question and much more in his new book "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra."

In an interview, we talked about the Saint Nicholas of history, the evolution of Santa Claus, and the reasons why a saint from the fourth century can inspire us today.
Q: Who was Saint Nicholas in real life?
A: The historical Saint Nicholas was born around the late third century or early fourth century. He lived his life in what is now the southwest shores of Turkey. He served as a bishop, a Christian pastor of the church in Myra, doing good works of gift-giving and generosity, serving the people as a true civil servant. There are stories of him bartering with grain ships to get grain to save the starving people of Myra, going to the capitol to appeal for lower taxes, interfering in court cases and saving three men from beheading.


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