Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nick, no matter the name, everyone knows the story of this plump, jolly, bringer of gifts. Or do they? The History of How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus, by Brian Handwerk, National GeographicIntroduction
We can be certain that some stories were told within decades of his life and possibly while he was still alive. We can make educated guesses as to their likelihood.
The majority of traditions say Nicholas was born Mar 15, AD 270 in Patara, a significant Mediterranean port city in the Roman province Lycia et Pamphylia, an area in modern Turkey evangelized by Paul during his Galatian ministry. His parents were wealthy Greek Christians. There is no controversy about finding wealthy merchants or Greek Christians in this city.
There are stories that his parents prayed and wept for years, some say 30 years, for a child. The lives of saints were sometimes embellished to parallel biblical accounts. This birth may have been embellished to parallel Abraham and Sarah receiving Isaac, Elkanah and Hannah receiving Samuel, or Zechariah and Elizabeth receiving John. If it had, we would expect a miraculous announcement to be a major part of the story. Lacking this announcement, a significant part of the embellishment, leads me to think they did wait years for a child, that it is not an embellishment, but I am not willing to be adamant about that.
There is disagreement about this. In The Life of Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker, by Michael the Archimandrite, thought to be the earliest complete biography (between 814 and 842 AD) to survive to the present we read, “Since their wishes were in accord with God’s, at the first coupling with each other there was conceived a fruit of righteousness: Nicholas, the lover of purity and of foresight.”
Nicholas was named after his uncle, the abbot at a nearby monastery. It is not a common name among early Christians, but it is not unknown. Nicholas, a proselyte of Antioch, was one of the first deacons selected in Acts. 6.
As a boy, he loved to visit the monastery. The monks became his friends and he joined them in chanting prayers and worship. The adults in his life, his devout parents, priest uncle, and the monks, taught him to love God and help the poor.
His parents died in a plague while he was young. He went to the monastery to live with his Uncle Nicholas (who eventually became Bishop of Myra) and continue his education.
Few teens have the wisdom and self-control to manage great wealth. Nicholas chose to give his away helping others.
As sometimes happens, a once wealthy man, though devout, had become destitute. His poverty prevented a dowry for any of his daughters. Without this honored tradition, no one would think of marrying them. Therefore his daughters were likely to be sold as slaves to settle his debts. The most likely buyer of young, female slaves would be a brothel.
Nicholas decided to help them secretly. One night, under the cover of darkness, he tossed a sack of gold coins through the window. Some accounts have it landing in the eldest girl’s stocking, which would have surely been interpreted as a sign that it was her dowry.
The father caught him the third time. He fell to his knees, thanking Nicholas. Nicholas ordered him to tell no one. if he told no one, how would the story have become known?
This story of the three daughters appears to be unique, not recycled among the saints, increasing the likelihood that it is genuine. While it is unique among the stories of the saints, there is a parallel in Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius was a 1st century mythic hero of Rome, possibly written to counter the stories of Christ. Apollonius gave money to a destitute father to save him from public embarrassment. No mention is made of the fate of the daughters. The Roman Empire considered a woman’s virtue to be of little concern compared to a man’s reputation.
Some have suggested that the Nicholas story is an embellishment on the Apollonius story with a Christian twist. The well-being of women in the New Testament is unparalleled in the ancient world.
By the 8th or 9th centuries, concern for a woman’s virtue had again sunk far below concern for a man’s reputation. It is unlikely the story would have been invented long after the life of Nicholas.
May I be so bold as to suggest that it is possible the Nicholas story was absorbed into the older story with a Roman twist? I understand the appeal of the Nicholas story, concern for the daughter’s virtue motivating selfless giving would appeal to the early church much as it does today. For a Roman myth to give money to protect a man’s reputation seems trite by comparison and is not consistent with the Roman emphasis on strength. I cannot prove it, but my impression is that the Nicholas story is the original based on a real event (except maybe the part about the gold landing in the first daughter’s stocking, I can see that as a later embellishment).
Nicholas outlived that emperor and was freed by the next, Constantine.
He became the Saint of the Falsely Imprisoned, which led to becoming the Saint of Thieves.
Accounts from the 14th century that he slapped an Arian eventually grew into accounts that he slapped Arius himself. They go on to say he was temporarily defrocked and imprisoned for the assault.
The anonymous acts of charity which had been attributed to Nicholas in his life did not end at his death. When the beneficiaries asked, “Who did this?” The common answer became, “Nicholas must have done it!” Gifts after his death would be the first of many miracles attributed to him. Eventually he would be called both “Saint Nicholas” and “Nicholas the Wonder Worker.”
I do not believe Nicholas gave these gifts after he died. I believe he inspired others to acts of generosity, continuing his ministry after his death.
After Nicholas died, stories about him grew and new stories were created. For example:
Shortly before becoming Bishop if Myra, Nicholas took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but his ship encountered a dramatic storm. He rebuked the storm and it subsided.
After becoming the patron saint of sailors, "May St. Nicholas hold the tiller," became a way of wishing good luck or smooth sailing.
During a famine, a butcher killed three children, cut up their bodies, and placed the pieces in a salting barrel, planning to sell them as ham. When Nicholas found out, he went to the butcher’s basement, pulled the three dismembered bodies from the barrel, and brought them back to life by making the sign of the cross. This story became so popular that he was made the patron saint of children.
Nicholas dozed off during a dinner at the Council of Nicea. He left his body behind to follow voices calling for his help. He traveled to a ship about to be broken apart by a mighty storm. The storm subsided as he raised his hands. The sailors thanked God for their deliverance and Nicholas awakened at his table in Nicea. “The ship has been saved,” he said.
The other bishops, unaware of his bi-location adventure, thought he spoke metaphorically of the church being saved from the Arian heresy.
These traditions received some verification by two scientific examinations of the relics in Bari and Venice. The bones are anatomically compatible and may belong to the same person. He died at over 70 years old. He was 5'6 with a slender-to-average build. He had lived for years in the cold and damp, consistent with a Roman imprisonment.
Luigi Martino, a professor of human anatomy at the University of Bari, examined the bones in the 1950s while the crypt received much-needed restoration. He took thousands of measurements, photographs, and x-rays. He produced detailed scientific drawings.
Facial reconstruction, a science which has developed since then, revealed a high forehead and eagle nose (yes, tangents from different parts of the nasal cavity can reveal much about the nose). Nasal bones between the eyes had been broken and healed asymmetrically, indicating a severely broken nose consistent with the beatings Christian prisoners would receive under Diocletian.
An olive skin tone, browns eyes, and grey or silver hair, all determined from his ethnicity, completed the picture. His appearance is consistent with icons through the ages, and the oldest icons are closest to the reconstruction.
The image is copyrighted and I do not have permission to post it. You may see it here.
In central Europe St. Nicholas rewarded good children, but it was assumed he was too nice to discipline the naughty. For a while, he was linked with the much older legend of the Krampus, a half-goat half-demon creature who would punish naughty children. Some kill-joys today confound the two, claiming the original Santa was a demon who kidnapped, tortured, and ate children. They may point out that “Santa” and “Satan” are spelled with the same letters, as if that is somehow significant.
In Norse lands, the god Odin had two ravens who would listen at people’s chimneys to learn who was good or bad. St. Nicholas eventually started keeping a list of the naughty and nice. During the Yule holiday (winter solstice), children would leave their boots by the chimney with carrots, hay, or other treats for Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. As Odin led a Yule hunting party, the Great hunt, across the sky, he would reward these children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts and candy. Today, children leave stockings by the chimney and may leave some carrots for Santa’s reindeer (although milk and cookies for Santa is more common).
In the 12th century, nuns in France began leaving treats for poor children on Dec 5, St. Nicholas Eve. The treats were typically apples, oranges, and nuts. Eventually they included cookies and other sweets. The children were told, “It must have been left by St. Nicholas.”
In England he merged with a Father Christmas character and in France he merged with Pere Noel. I suspect that Nicholas of Myra would have rejected the title, “Father Christmas” in all languages as emphasizing himself instead of Christ. His humility would not allow that.
In making the Christ child the giver of gifts, Luther also moved the gift-giving from the Feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6, to Christmas, the birth of Christ, Dec. 25.
Sinter Klaas wore a long, red cape over white bishop’s garments and carried a shepherd’s staff. In spite of the Reformation, he continued to be the gift-giver.
The Dutch brought Sinter Klaas legends and traditions with them when they established the New Amsterdam colony. The city allowed religious freedom, so Catholics were free to regard St. Nicholas as the patron saint of the city and Protestants were free to hide little gifts in children’s shoes. There were even reports of “official” visits by Sinter Klaas.
Eventually, the name changed to flow more easily in English.
Washington Irving’s Sinter Klaas was “equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, [and] a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose...” He “came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” Stockings were hung still by the chimney on St. Nicholas eve with him “now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites.” Occasionally “he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children, in token of the degeneracy of the parents.”
The story included a chubby and plump St. Nicholas who was a jolly old elf in a flying sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer that landed on the roof. “St. Nick” came down the chimney with a bundle of toys flung on his back.
Here we learned that the first reindeer were named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. Dunder and Blixem eventually became Donner and Blitzen (Thunder and Lightning).
There is some disagreement about the author. Clement Moore did write poetry, but never anything quite like this (he was a professor of classics at Columbia University). It is possible that addressing children resulted in a more light-hearted poem than was his usual. A case has been made for Henry Livingston, a farmer/patriot who wrote humorous rhymes for children, having written it about 1807/1808.
Regardless of the author, he has entertained generations of children.
The idea was rejected by publishers at first because in the 1930s a bright, red nosed depicted alcoholism and drunkenness. Cute images created for the art saved the story.
As Santa, I tell children that my reindeer are nicer than they seem in the song and the movies. They are not bullies. Someone in Hollywood just tried to make the story more dramatic. I encourage the children not to call other people names or to bully them. They should also include everyone in their games.
Nast’s “A Christmas Post” showed a child mailing a letter to “Santa Claus, North Pole” and his “Shrine of St. Nicholas” showed an elf-sized Santa Claus sitting on a box or trunk labeled “North Pole.” He thought the North Pole, a very private place owned by no country, would be a good location for the man “dressed in fur, from his head to his toe.” (Robert Perry, who reached it in 1909, would have been surprised to find he was not the first!) Actually, the shifting ice with no solid ground beneath would make it impossible for Santa to have a permanent, toy-making facility there.
Over the decades of the Sundlblom ads run, urban legends reported that Coca Cola invented Santa Claus and that Santa Claus invented Coca Cola.
She has more than proven her worth today. Some children who are afraid of Santa himself find Mrs. Claus a more comforting figure with whom they will take pictures. Some would rather spend time baking cookies with Mrs. Claus than listening to stories from Santa. (In some cases, she has proven to be more than his equal as a storyteller.)
When I was growing up, Santa Claus was limited to stories, movies, and department stores. Today, he makes home visits and shows up at corporate parties. He sometimes shows up at “Christmas in July” events.
Developments that would warm the heart of the original Nicholas is Santa visiting hospitals, events for special needs children and adults, and collecting toys for unfortunate children. Here are a few examples:
Toys for Tots began in 1947 as the brain child of Marine Corps Reserve Major Bill Hendricks, Actually it was his wife, Diane, who was the real inspiration. She had crafted a few handcrafted dolls and asked Bill to deliver them to an agency that supports children in need.
“When Bill reported back to his wife that he could not find such an organization, she instructed him to ‘start one!’” Maj Hendricks and the Marines in his reserve unit in LA collected and distributed 5,000 toys in 1947.
“Seeing such successful community engagement in 1947, the Commandant directed all Marine Reserve Sites to implement a TFT campaign transforming it into a national community action program in 1948.”
Santa responds when floods, tornadoes, or other disasters strike.
“When the tornado in Joplin, MO happened in 2011, several members of Lone Star Santas saw the opportunity to reach out to children and families affected by the natural disaster. After all, adults receive more focus during these horrific events. Children are left to be cared for mostly by their parents and other family members.
“Who better to bring smiles to children’s faces than Santa Claus? And, amongst all the loss, make sure they had something they could call their own…a new toy.
“Monies were donated, toys were donated and purchased by members, and a Convoy of Toys was organized. This was our first call to action. It was devastation to the community but we saw the need to reach out to children of all ages to bring Love, Hope, Joy…and Toys, all wrapped in a big Santa hug directly to those impacted by natural disasters.”
Lone Star Santas, the largest regional/statewide Santa organization in the world, has influenced other Santa organizations to to start their own programs.
Santa cares for children suffering grief and chronic conditions.
“Founded in 2003, Santa America is a national volunteer service organization. Spreading Love, Hope and Joy wherever he goes for everyone he meets, when Santa Claus is needed, Santa visits a child or family any month of the year.
“Santa America's special mission is to provide an unhurried visit to families facing physical or emotional crisis from a loving, committed, trained, and back-grounded Santa. Our trained Santas, Mrs. Clause and Elves visit your child and family in your home, in the hospital or hospice, where ever Santa America is needed, any time of the year, bringing with him a warm Santa hug and spreading Love, Hope and Joy wherever he goes for everyone he meets.”
Some Santas only do charity events and many volunteer for worthy causes.
The gifts, love, hope, and charity described here from the 4th century through all the modern organizations were all inspired by the generous faith of one man. Nicholas of Myra inspired Santa Claus and the many Santa organizations today. His influence is still growing.
Never underestimate the power of a life well lived. Live yours well, too.
HOME VISITS YES! Santa Claus can come to YOUR HOME for a Christmas party, gift delivery, photos...
OFFICE AND COMMUNITY EVENTS An office party, tree lighting, fund raiser, toy drive, or other event will be better with Santa!
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