Saint Nicholas: aka Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kriss Kringle, and so on...
The stories of Saint Nicholas date back to the 4th century, when he was a bishop in modern-day Turkey. Historical accounts of his life are a swirl of uncertainty, exaggeration, and speculation. Their commonality? Every tale of Saint Nicholas describes him as a kind, generous man who devoted his life to helping children.
Perhaps Saint Nicholas was born into a wealthy family and, to lead a pious life, joined the church. Having taken a vow of poverty, he might have given his fortune to children and families in need. Perhaps he roamed the countryside helping the sick. One story, popular in European folklore, tells how St. Nick saved three sisters from being sold into slavery by giving them each money for a dowry. Another accounts him surprising needy families by leaving gifts at their homes late on Christmas Eve and filling their stockings (hung to dry by the fire) with food.
A lesser known story explains why Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors. On a trip to Jerusalem, he prophecied and later prayed to end a maelstrom of catastrophic proportions. The sailors, certain they would have died had Nicholas not performed this miracle, began telling the story of this would-be saint. Other sailors claimed Saint Nicholas came to them in dreams, saving them from poverty and disaster. Because of the various miracles St. Nick performed, he is known as the patron saint of children, virgins, merchants and sailors. (He is also the patron of Russia.)
After his death on December 6th, the Catholic calendar reserved that day to celebrate the generous life of Saint Nicholas. In predominantly Catholic areas, there are often parades or feasts with ornate cakes and breads on December 6th.
skow says re Saint Nicholas: It's usually celebrated in the Netherlands and Belgium on the 5th, which is supposed to be his birthday sinterklaas
Some information from encarta.com