Charlotte Allen outlines the case that Nicholas of Myra, the ancient bishop better known as St. Nicholas on whom Santa Claus is based, actually existed:
Nicholas of Myra is believed to have been born around 270 A.D. and died in 343. Unlike other church fathers, he left no writings, and the first mention of him dates from only the sixth century. In 325 he supposedly attended the Council of Nicaea, the gathering of churchmen that affirmed the divinity of Christ. There, according to legend, Nicholas was briefly imprisoned for slugging the heretic Arius in a fit of righteous rage. But the earliest lists of attendees don’t mention a “Nicholas,” and many historians of Christianity have concluded the saint never existed.
Mr. English nonetheless builds a convincing case that there really was a St. Nicholas. Around the middle of the fourth century, he points out, the name “Nicholas” (a combination of the Greek words for “victory” and “people”), hitherto virtually unknown in public records and ledgers and on tombstone inscriptions, suddenly became popular in Asia Minor and elsewhere. A still-extant tomb at Myra (modern Demre), a Mediterranean coastal town in southwestern Turkey, dates archaeologically to the right period. When the Seljuk Turks, who were Muslims, swept through western Asia Minor in 1087, Italian sailors transported the bones that were in the tomb to Bari, on the heel of Italy, where they are venerated to this day. The bones seem never to have been carbon-dated, but imaging tests conducted in 2004 revealed that they belonged to an elderly man who had suffered a broken jaw—perhaps as a result of that scuffle with Arius, or torture in the vicious persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire during the early fourth century.
If he didn’t actually exist, he should have.