St Nicholas – The Man Behind Santa Claus

A painting by the Italian artist Fra Angelico about 1437, meant to show St Nicholas starting to rescue sailors and other people from death
A painting by the Italian artist Fra Angelico about 1437, meant to show St Nicholas starting to rescue sailors and other people from death

by Ray Setterfield

December 6, 343 ADSaint Nicholas of Bari, Bishop of Myra, the inspiration for Santa Claus, died on this day. But the legend did not die with him and, as every child knows, Saint Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus or Father Christmas, is hauled by reindeer every year to millions of homes where he enters via the chimney to deliver gifts. Or so they say.

It all began in the Middle Ages when Nicholas, who was born at Patara, in southern Turkey, heard about three sisters of marriageable age who faced being forced into prostitution because their father could not afford dowries.

Nicholas, who was born to a wealthy family of Greek Christians, had received a large inheritance when he was orphaned at a young age and as a devout Christian he used the money to help the sick, the poor, and others in need.

Which was fortunate for the sisters because, as the story goes, he decided to help them by dropping bags of gold coins down their chimney. One of the bags landed in a stocking that had been hung by the fireplace to dry. This eventually led to the custom of children hanging stockings, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.

In truth, very little is known about Nicholas. The earliest accounts of his life were written centuries after his death and, as scholars have noted, “contain many legendary elaborations.”

But had Nicholas lived today stories about him would have gone viral. One told how three young boys were chopped up and pickled in salt by a butcher who hid their bodies in a barrel. Nicholas not only miraculously restored the three to life, but converted the wicked butcher to Christianity.

Another less dramatic tale tells how a band of pirates kidnapped a young boy and made him a slave. He was chosen by the emir, or ruler, to be his personal cup-bearer and so spent the next year waiting on the king, bringing him wine in a golden cup.

Devastated by the loss of their only child, the parents could do nothing but pray. Then St. Nicholas appeared before the astonished boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home still holding the golden cup.

Yet another story relates that when Nicholas was travelling by ship to the Holy Land a storm almost wrecked the vessel. But as soon as he admonished the waves, the storm abated.

Nicholas’s good works and his piety meant that his reputation began to spread, earning him the admiration and respect of the clergy as well as laypeople. Then while he was on his visit to the Holy Land the Bishop of Myra died, triggering a meeting of all the other bishops to elect a successor. It soon became apparent that Nicholas was the man for the job.

He accepted the position even though this was the time of 4th Century persecutions by the Roman Empire when thousands of Christians were arrested and tortured – a fate that Nicholas was to meet. He is said to have been kept in chains in prison until Emperor Constantine came to power and released all Christian prisoners.

The enduring concern that Nicholas displayed for young people gave rise to the tradition throughout Europe of giving gifts on his feast day – December 6. Children would leave socks or shoes on a chair, or next to the fireplace, and go to sleep on the feast day eve trusting that the following morning they would be filled with gifts.

In the 10th Century an anonymous Greek wrote of Nicholas: “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the furthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honour.”

Indeed, hundreds of churches have been named after him, including 300 in Belgium, 34 in Rome, 23 in the Netherlands and more than 400 in England. Around Europe Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students.

The veneration of saints was opposed during the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, but Nicholas continued to be an important saint in Europe, especially in Holland where the Dutch observed his feast day with secret gifts for children.

They called him “Sint Nikolaas” or “Sinterklaas” and Dutch migrants took the legend of this gift-giving saint to America in 1700. There, he eventually became Santa Claus, a benevolent, jolly man who brought gifts during the Christmas holiday. The name “Santa Claus” is an American accented version of the Dutch “Sinterklaas”. Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus are the same person.

In England, after King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church in the 16th Century, the feast day of Saint Nicholas on December 6 was no longer kept and the celebration was moved to December 25 to coincide with Christmas Day.

In Henry’s time Father Christmas was depicted as a bulky man in fur-lined scarlet or green robes who endorsed the spirit of seasonal good cheer, bringing peace, joy, good food, wine and revelry. The image has lived on.

Saint Nicholas died, apparently at the age of 73, at Myra where he was the bishop for many years. Myra was an ancient Greek settlement which became the small Turkish town of Kale, renamed Demre in 2005, in the present-day Antalya Province of Turkey.

As mentioned, the stories about Saint Nicholas are open to considerable doubt. So much so that in 1969 Pope Paul VI had the Feast of St Nicholas dropped from the Catholic calendar on the grounds that there was so little documentary evidence about his life and deeds.

Published: October 27, 2021
Updated: October 28, 2021

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