Saint Nicholas, patron saint of seafarers, at one time was one of the most venerated saints in Iceland. He may have been brought by Vikings from either Norman areas in England and the Continent or directly from Byzantium. He must have been well-known by the 12th century when a law was passed calling for a night-long fast before the feasts of the apostles and of St. Nicholas.
Iceland once had fifty-nine places of worship and altars dedicated to St. Nicholas—fifty-one churches plus patron saint of other chapels and altars—only the Virgin Mary, St. Peter and St. Olav were used more.
Sæmunder Jónsson at Oddi had a feast-day every year on St. Nicholas Day, inviting "all the best men in the neighborhood." It isn't known how they celebrated, but, surely, the stories of St. Nicholas must have been told.
Another account tells of the faith people had in Saint Nicholas. Hrafn Oddsson and Sturla Þóròarson attacked Þorgils. After Þorgils asked for peace and it was offered, Óláfr hvitaskáld Þóròarson, under whose protection Þorgils was, said:
You will both find, Hrafn and Sturla, and all those in your company that I will repay all the dishonour you have done to this place and to me with all the fury I can command. I shall pray to Almighty God and to the holy bishop Nicholas to whom this place belongs to wreak vengeance on your crimes.
Nicholas' popularity in Iceland may have been related to his being patron of powerful, noble families.
One of the greatest treasures among Icelandic Medieval manuscripts is the Helgastaðabók: Nikulás Saga (Book of Helgastadir), containing a Life of St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra, with three full-page pictures of St. Nicholas and fifteen figured initials. It was most unusual to have more than one full-page illumination for such a book and no others equal the quality of these illuminations. The book was reprinted in a special edition in 1982 by the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi and Lögberg Publishers. The original manuscript is in Royal Library in Stockholm.
Here are the three full-page illuminations from the 14th century Helgastaðabók from Helgastadir, telling the Life of Saint Nicholas.
In the 1930s a group of lads dressed in Santa costumes, introduced a new image and character, now referred to as the "Coca-Cola Santa."
St. Nicholas Saga: Helgastaðabók: Nikulás Saga
Illuminations from Helgastaðabók: Nikulás Saga: perg. 4to nr. 16 (Book of Helgastadir), by Selma Jónsdóttir, Stefán Karlsson, Sverrir Tómasson; Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi and Lögberg, 1982. Permission pending.