Statue of St Nicholas, France, 17th century.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
St Nicholas (280-343 AD) was born in Lycia, Asia Minor. The famous story of St Nicholas is about a poor man who had no money to give to his three daughters on their wedding day. St Nicholas secretly left gold in the stockings which the girls had left to dry by the fire overnight. In the morning they found the gold and were able to marry. The tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas day derives from this legend of St Nicholas' benevolence. Now children hang up stockings on Christmas Eve hoping that he will fill them with presents while they sleep. His identification with Father Christmas began in Europe and spread to America, where his name was altered to Santa Claus. St Nicholas is patron saint of children, and of Rusia, merchants, sailors, travellers and thieves.