I choose this picture of Saint Nicholas because it seems to highlight the confusion surrounding this man. Was Saint Nicholas a Church Bishop, or is he really Santa Claus?
Saint Nicholas was a Bishop in Myra, which is in south-western Turkey, and was one of the earliest Saints to be remembered by the church, although only locally. It was only when the Muslims captured Myra and Nicholas' remains were moved to Bari in 1087, that his reputation began to grow.
Nicholas was a kind and generous man. The most familiar story from his life is of him giving three bags of gold to three young girls in order to pay for their dowry. The alternative would have been for them to turn to prostitution in order to survive, which was unthinkable.
It is believed by some that this story led to the use of three gold balls as the pawnbroker's sign, but that symbol came to be used because it was part of the Lombard Family Crest, and they were Europe's first money-lenders.
The number three does occur several times in stories about Nicholas. For example, on one occasion a butcher was driven to murder three young boys by drowning them in a tub of brine. When Nicholas found out about this, he went and prayed for them and all three were returned to life. On another occasion, Nicholas heard about three young men who were unjustly condemned to death by a court, he went and pleaded their cause and all three were spared. Then finally, there was a time when he saved three shipwrecked sailors from drowning.
Simply because the number three occurs so often should not mean that we discount these stories. Often numbers were added or multiplied as a way of saying that this was a good thing for a person to do, or a perfect act. Clearly, Nicholas was a good, godly man, someone worth remembering for his generosity and kindness, but is he Santa Claus?
Actually, no! Due to his kindness, Nicholas is remembered as the Patron Saint of children, and in Holland it was customary to give gifts on his feast day, the 6th of December. When the Dutch settlers landed in North America, they blended what they knew about Saint Nicholas with some Nordic Folklore about a magician who rewarded good children and punished naughty ones. From this confusion Santa Claus grew, and we are left with pictures like the one above.