Q— I hear St. Nicholas is a very important figure in Orthodox Christianity, whereas he survives in the West in large part as Santa Claus. Why is he so important in the East, and what is he remembered for?

A — St. Nicholas was a fourth century bishop of Myra, whose feast day is Dec. 6. I don’t know why St. Nicholas is such an important figure in Orthodoxy, at least from the ninth century onwards. It is true that he got “morphed” into Santa Claus in America. But he is a very elusive figure.

Almost nothing is known of St. Nicholas historically. According to popular tradition, he was imprisoned by the Roman authorities during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, not long before Constantine’s Edict of Toleration. Some maintain that he was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325. That, however, seems unlikely. His name is not found in the lists of the bishops who were at the Council, and he is never referred to in the writings of St. Athanasius, the great hero-bishop of Nicene theology.

Among other patronages, he is the patron saint of Russia, of sailors and of children. His symbol is three bags of gold, the dowry he is supposed to have given to three girls to save them from sexual degradation/prostitution. The tradition has it that he threw bags of gold into their window during the night. As Nicholas is represented as a generous gift-giver in the tradition, perhaps we may view him as an Advent icon of the generous Gift-Giver, God himself, who gives himself to us in incarnation so that we may be found in him by grace.