The best-known story involves a man with three unmarried daughters, and not enough money to provide them with suitable dowries. This meant that they could not marry, and were likely to end up as prostitutes. Nicholas walked by the man's house on three successive nights, and each time threw a bag of gold in through a window (or, when the story came to be told in colder climates, down the chimney). Thus, the daughters were saved from a life of shame, and all got married and lived happily ever after.
Pictures of Nicholas often show three bags of gold next to him, and often these bags have become simply three disks or balls. Nicholas became the patron of an Italian city (I think Bari, which is where his body is now buried) that was a center of the pawnbroking business, and hence a pawnbroking shop traditionally advertises by displaying three gold balls over its front. It is thought that some persons looking at pictures of Nicholas confused the three round objects with human heads. Hence there is a story of a wicked innkeeper who murdered three boys and salted their bodies to serve to his guests, to save on the butcher's bill. Nicholas visited the inn and confronted the innkeeper, who confessed his crime, whereupon Nicholas prayed over the brine-tub and the three boys leaped out unharmed. Other stories have him saving the lives of three innocent men who had been condemned to death. Still other stories have him coming to the rescue of drowning sailors (could this be related to the brine-tub incident?). Nicholas has always been popular with children, mariners, pawnbrokers, the Dutch, the Russians, and recently, the department-store owners.
In many countries, Nicholas visits children on his feast day, 6 December, and brings them gifts then. In these countries, there is usually no exchange of Christmas presents, but there may be gifts again on January 6, the feast of the coming of the Wise Men, who brought gifts to the Holy Child of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We are told, but it is uncertain, that Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith before the accession of Constantine, and that he was present at the Council of Nicea in 325. We may note in passing that the picture of him as roly-poly is a late development. Early stories indicate that he was generous to others, but not given to self-indulgence. Indeed, even as an unweaned infant, he fasted regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays....