St. Nicholas was a real person. Here is a short story of his life:
Nicholas was born in Asia Minor into a wealthy family, but he chose poverty. He did not spend his inheritance of three bags of gold coins, but considered how he might use it to serve the poor. There lived in his town a man who was poor and could not afford dowries for his three daughters so the man had determined to sell his girls into slavery when they came of age. As each one came of age, St. Nicholas dropped one of the bags of gold coins through the window of the mans's house in the middle of the night, (possibly landing in the stocking the girl had put out to dry) providing a dowry and redeeming each of them from slavery. This is why he is considered the patron saint of pawnbrokers and his symbol of three coins joined by a form of a cross is one of their symbols as is three bags of gold. On at least two occasions he interceded with proof of the innocence of the accused and saved them from death. He was considered a saint during his lifetime and his face would sometimes glow like Moses'. His presence brought solace and peace. He is famous for his love for children and his name and reputation have been transformed by modern folklore into "Santa Claus."
He is also credited with several miraculous rescues of sailors at sea, both during his earthly life and since.
He participated in the Council of Nicea in 325, until he was ejected for slapping Arius on the face. The Theotokos and Jesus Christ appeared to some of the hierarchs to instruct them to restore the godly saint to office.
This is the church of St. Nicholas in Myra, Turkey today.
He reposed (died) in the Lord at an old age, on December 6, 343.
This is St. Nicholas' original tomb in Myra.
In 1087 sailors from the Italian city of Bari took advantage of the chaos from invading Seljuk Turks to abscond with St. Nicholas' bones over the vociferous objections of the Orthodox monks caring for the bones. The sailors claimed they had a vision from the saint himself to preserve his remains from the Muslim invaders. The bones were re-interred in a church in Bari where they have been ever since.
St. Nicholas' bones are kept here in Bari, Italy.
The photo below is a reconstruction of the saint's head based on measurements of his skull.
In the Orthodox church we have special songs to sing on saint's days, this one is for St. Nicholas.
Troparion (Tone 4)Your works of justice showed you to your congregation a canon of faith,
the likeness of humility, a teacher of abstinence,
O Father, Bishop Nicholas. Wherefore, by humility you achieved exaltation, and by meekness, richness. Intercede, therefore, with Christ to save our souls.