St. Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) who was celebrated for his charity and his patronage of children, is the model for Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinterklaas).
In many places around the world today, the saint is commemorated on the morning of his feast (Dec. 6), or the evening before, with gift giving to children—sometimes in the form of candies left in shoes.
In 18th-century New York, the Dutch Sinterklaas, a figure based on St. Nicholas and mythical characters including England’s “Father Christmas,” was transformed into Santa Claus. The traditions of Santa Claus are celebrated on December 25, the feast of Christ’s Nativity, or Christmas.
In Italy the Santa Claus figure is known as Babbo Natale, but the most important calendar celebration in December remains St. Nicholas’s Day. Still more important in Italian culture is La Befana, an old woman who gives gifts on the feast of the Epiphany (January 6, also known as Three Kings Day).
In the new year, the NCMA presents the special exhibition Glory of Venice: Renaissance Paintings 1470–1520, which features a panel with St. Nicholas holding three balls, symbolizing his charity (left).
Carlo Crivelli, Saint Nicholas of Bari, 1472, oil paint on wood panel, 37 1/2 x 12 1/2 in., The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund, 1952.111