Saint Nicolas
  • Home
  • Blog
  • Who is the character of Saint Nicolas?

Last Updated: 4 December 2023

As the frosty winds whisper through the cobbled streets of Alsace and Lorraine, a mystical figure clad in a crimson robe emerges from the shadows, carrying with him the enchantment of centuries-old traditions. Who is Saint Nicolas, this festive harbinger of joy, the bearer of gifts and the symbol of benevolence on the 6th of December?

Join me on a journey into the heart of Alsace and Lorraine as we unwrap the tale of Saint Nicolas, the beloved figure that paints these regions with the hues of timeless celebration. 

Saint Nicolas in a school in Nancy © French Moments

A visit of Saint Nicholas to my school in the early 1980s © French Moments

From centuries-old folklore to the modern-day festivities, discover the magic that makes St. Nicholas a cherished part of the holiday tapestry.

Let's embark on a whimsical exploration of the traditions, stories, and enduring spirit of Saint Nicolas that brings warmth to the winter chill. 🌟🎅🏻

🎦 Watch our short video on the celebrations of Saint Nicolas in Nancy, which will inspire you to explore this historic city in France ⤵

Who is Saint Nicholas?

If one were to seek a swift response, Saint Nicholas might be casually deemed the forebear of Father Christmas.

However, the allure of this legendary figure transcends such simplicity, beckoning us to journey back through the annals of time to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

Back in time to the 3rd c. AD

Cloaked in the mists of time, the life of Saint Nicholas, known initially as Nicholas of Myra, unfolds against the backdrop of the ancient world. Born into luxury around 260 AD in Patara, Lycia (present-day Turkey), Nicholas emerged as the heir to a considerable Christian family fortune. Even in his youth, he eschewed conventional play instead of immersing himself in the tapestry of local Christian gatherings.

A benevolent hero

Nicholas' reputation for generosity precedes him. His benevolent character is the stuff of legend, weaving tales of his virtuous acts. Legends recount how he rescued three impoverished young girls from a perilous fate in the world's oldest profession, aided in the dismissal of three soldier-officers facing the spectre of death, and emerged as the saviour of sailors navigating treacherous storms.

Saint-Nicolas © French Moments

Nicholas of Myra © French Moments

Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

In the annals of ecclesiastical history, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, unfolds as a saga of divine providence, compassion, and unwavering conviction.

In 303 AD, following a sacred pilgrimage to the Holy Land, fate laid a solemn mantle upon Nicholas as his uncle, the revered Bishop of Myra, drew his last breath. As the assembly of bishops fervently prayed for guidance in choosing a successor, a celestial decree echoed through the sacred halls, instructing them to elect the first soul to cross the church's threshold. As if guided by a higher force, Nicholas entered first with humility in his heart, assuming the mantle of Bishop.

Saint-Nicolas © French Moments

St. Nicholas, basilica of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port © French Moments

A champion of the oppressed

Endowed with an innate sense of justice, Nicholas of Myra swiftly endeared himself to the community. A champion of the oppressed, he ardently advocated for lost causes, notably striving to alleviate the burdensome taxes imposed upon the faithful. His acts of benevolence were not confined to lofty speeches; Nicholas could often be found on the ground, personally tending to the needs of the needy.

Facing persecution

In the throes of Emperor Diocletian's reign (284-305), a fierce storm of persecution raged against Christians across the empire. Unwavering in his faith, Saint Nicholas stood resolute amid the storm of oppression.

On the hallowed day of 6 December 345, at the venerable age of 75, Saint Nicholas transcended the mortal realm in Myra, leaving behind a legacy etched in the annals of Christian courage and compassion.

Saint Nicolas in Alsace and Lorraine

For children of the French provinces of the Alsace, Lorraine and the Flanders, Saint Nicolas is the character who distributes presents on the 6th December. He is the Patron Saint of Lorraine whose people organise large-scale parades in their towns in early December.

Saint Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

Children have found Saint Nicolas in Nancy, Lorraine © French Moments

When the Dutch migrated to the United States in the 19th century, they took with them the traditions of St. Nicholas (aka Sinterklaas) which gradually evolved into Santa Claus, a moralist character whose duty was to reward good children and punish the bad ones.

What does Saint Nicolas look like?

The contemporary image we hold of Saint Nicholas bears little resemblance to the historical figure of Nicholas of Myra.

Yet, a vivid portrait emerges in the enchanting tapestry of Lorraine tradition.

Saint Nicolas is rendered a figure of grace in the heart of Lorraine folklore – a slender, dignified man graced by a flowing white beard. Clad in splendid silk robes befitting his esteemed position, a bishop's mitre adorns his noble visage. In his left hand, a bishop's crozier stands as a symbol of spiritual authority and benevolence. 

Saint Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

Saint-Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

The grey donkey

A delightful accompaniment to this venerable saint is a grey donkey, dutifully laden with baskets brimming with sweets and gifts, ready to be bestowed upon the deserving.

Saint Nicolas and grey donkey © French Moments

Saint Nicolas and grey donkey © French Moments

The terrifying Père Fouettard

Yet, every tale has its shadow, and Saint Nicolas' narrative unfolds alongside the enigmatic presence of Père Fouettard – the fabled disciplinarian, the harrower of naughty children.

Père Fouettard engraving 1863

Père Fouettard engraving, 1863

Together, this duo weaves a captivating narrative that transcends time, bringing forth the magic and mystique of Saint Nicolas in the rich tapestry of Lorraine's cherished traditions.

Saint Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

Saint Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

A patron saint in France and beyond

Saint Nicholas, a venerable figure in the pantheon of saints, holds multifaceted patronage over various realms, reflecting a diverse spectrum of devotion.

Foremost, he stands as the benevolent guardian of children, watching over their innocence and spreading joy in the hearts of the young.

Mulhouse Christmas Market © French Moments

Saint Nicolas at the Mulhouse Christmas Market © French Moments

Mariners invoke his name at sea, seeking safe passage through treacherous waters, making him the esteemed patron saint of sailors.

Merchants, navigating the tumultuous tides of trade, also find solace under his watchful gaze.

In the hallowed halls of justice, members of the Paris bar turn to Saint Nicholas, recognising him as their advocate and guide.

His protection extends beyond French borders, embracing Lorraine since the historic Battle of Nancy in 1477.

As the protector of Russia, his influence resonates through the annals of history, embodied in Nicholas II, the last Tsar.

The saint's benevolence extends to various cities, where he is revered and celebrated. Amsterdam, Bari in Italy, Eupen in Belgium, Fribourg in Switzerland, and Houilles near Paris all find themselves under his watchful care.

Évreux in Normandy hosts a grand agricultural fair in his honour, a testament to the widespread reverence for Saint Nicholas.

Numerous parishes across France have chosen Saint Nicholas as their patron saint, reinforcing his universal appeal. In Picardy, Champagne-Ardenne, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and his cherished Lorraine, the faithful gather to honour the saint who, in his diverse patronages, embodies the spirit of compassion, protection, and justice.

Saint Nicolas on the balcony of the City-Hall of Nancy © French Moments

Saint Nicolas on the balcony of the City-Hall of Nancy © French Moments

Saint Nicolas or Saint Nicholas?

In the enchanting mosaic of holiday traditions, Saint Nicolas emerges under various names, each adding a unique brushstroke to the canvas of festive folklore.

Known as Saint Nicholas in English, the French-speaking regions of Alsace and Lorraine affectionately refer to him as Saint Nicolas.

Venture north, and you'll encounter the Dutch manifestation, Sinterklaas, gracefully sailing through canals on his gift-laden boat. It is this name that gave life to Santa Claus in the USA!

Saint Nicolas celebrations in Nancy

Across the Rhine, in the Germanic traditions, he goes by the name of Sankt Nikolaus.

It's fascinating how a single benevolent figure takes on different identities, yet the essence of generosity and joy remains constant. So, whether you're awaiting Saint Nicholas, Saint Nicolas, Sinterklaas, or Sankt Nikolaus, the spirit of giving and merriment is bound to embrace you in the heartwarming glow of the holiday season. 🎅🏻🌍

Read about Saint-Nicolas in French

La légende de saint Nicolas © French Moments
Christmas in Paris ebook
Journey to the Land of Christmas
About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of Discovery Courses and books about France.

Like it? Leave a comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Transparency: Some blog posts and pages may contain affiliate or sponsored links. If you are planning a trip, the use of these links helps us to run the site. There is no additional cost to you. All you have to do is click on the link and any booking you make is automatically tracked. Thank you for your support!

Escape to France with every email! Get insider insights, travel guides, cultural gems delivered and exclusive offers to your inbox twice a week. Your journey to Paris and France begins when you sign up!



24 Places to See in France in 2024