The legendary figure of Santa Claus originated at least partially from the myths surrounding St. Nicholas of Myra (or of Bari), who lived during the fourth century and died December 6, 345 or 352. While there are a great many miracles and events attributed to St. Nicholas, almost all that is known with certainty about him is that he was the Bishop of Myra. He was probably born at Patara in Lycia of Asia Minor (in what is now Turkey) around 270, and was chosen bishop of Myra, the capital of Lycia, when the episcopal seat was vacated. He became known for his extreme piety and zeal, and it is almost certain that he underwent imprisonment during the persecution of Christians under Diocletian. Some histories have said that he was present at the Council of Nicea, but because his name is not mentioned in any of the lists of bishops that attended, it is somewhat doubtful that he was actually there. He died in Myra and his body was buried in the cathedral, where it remained until 1087 at which time it was moved to Bari, Italy.
The Popular Legends of St. Nicholas
Aside from what is historically known to be true about St. Nicholas, there are a great many legends that have sprung up which are not necessarily verified, but are still popular with those who have a devotion to St. Nicholas. He was very pious in his childhood, even to the point where he is said to have eaten only once on Wednesdays and Fridays, to be in accordance with the fasts of those days. He was said to have studied in Egypt. He always had a thirst for religion, both learning about it and practicing it, and when his parents died while he was still young, Nicholas took the large inheritance they left him and committed to using it for charity. From this grew one of the most well-known stories about him. A father of three daughters who had lost all his money, and thus had no dowry for the girls so they could marry, was about to sell them into prostitution when one night a bag or ball of gold showed up inside the man's house mysteriously. St. Nicholas had heard about the man's story and intentions and wanted to use his money to help save the girls from an evil life. The gold sufficed as the eldest daughter's dowry, and she was able to be married. St. Nicholas repeated this twice more for the second and third daughters, so that all three were able to be married. The man waited for St. Nicholas to show up for the third time, to see who it was that was giving his family these gifts, and when he saw St. Nicholas he was overcome with gratitude for this benevolent man who wanted no credit for what he did. It is likely from this story that the idea of Santa Claus began, because in some tellings St. Nicholas threw the bags of gold down the chimney and they may have fallen into a stocking or shoe drying near the fire. It is also for this reason that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of maidens and unmarried women, as well as brides.
Read more about legends of and devotion to St. Nicholas here.