St. Nicholas

The truth about Santa Claus

It’s been a long journey from the Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity, to America’s jolly Santa Claus. However, if you peel back the accretions he is still Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness.

There is growing interest in reclaiming the original saint in the United States to help restore the spiritual dimension of this festive time. For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live. A bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the center of his life, his ministry, his entire existence. Families, churches, and schools are embracing true St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true center of Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons.

The evolution of St. Nicholas to Santa Claus

In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that year he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the origin of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”

The jolly elf image received a big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

 

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

  

One of the most famous legends about his life tells of a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters. If he couldn’t get them married, he’d have to sell them into slavery. Hearing of the family’s predicament, Nicholas took a bag (or a sock, as some versions have it) of gold, enough for a dowry, and tossed it into the family’s house through the window (or down the chimney). He repeated his anonymous gift for each of the daughters, enabling the girls to marry.

Many of the fun activities that we now associate with the holidays arise from commemorations of Saint Nicholas. Our practice of giving gifts at Christmas time came from the commemoration of the dowries, as well as the gifts of the Magi. The foil-covered chocolate coins that find their way into Christmas stockings are reminiscent of the dowries, as are the stockings themselves. And when we awake to find gifts that arrived anonymously in the night, we can recall the socks full of gold that came through the chimney (or the window) to save the lives of the three young women.

Q: How did he evolve into the present-day Santa Claus?

Seal: The love of Nicholas kept his cult alive up until the late 18th century in Manhattan, where a re-versioning of Santa Claus occurred.

The name “Santa Claus” is an American accented version of the Dutch “Sinterklaas.” St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are the same person, but many people don’t realize that. They are one in the same, but they look different because they are at different points in his posthumous evolution.

We don’t know when the idea was carried from Northern Europe to New Amsterdam, now Manhattan. It’s safe to say he came with early settlers as a fake memory and was then dormant in North America until the late 18th century.

What happened then was that gift giving, which had been until that time a local and seasonal exchange of homemade objects, exploded into something bigger. Mass manufacturing began, retail shops opened, toys became available from Northern Europe, and books, musical instruments and linens all became purchasable.

The effect this had was that gift-giving customs were transformed out of all recognition. This caused the need for a providing spirit of gift giving. St. Nicholas was the gift giver from the old world in the Dutch and English traditions; they didn’t have to think back too far to remember him.

People in the late 18th century popularized the idea of Santa Claus, but not too deliberately at that time for commercialization. He began to emerge then and his name gradually changed into Santa Claus.

In the 1820s he began to acquire the recognizable trappings: reindeer, sleigh, bells. They are simply the actual bearings in the world from which he emerged. At that time, sleighs were how you got about Manhattan.

The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” debuted in 1822 and described all his details. He smoked a pipe then, but was well on the way to be the figure we know now.

As all these elements took shape around him, he became more and more associated with commercialism, which is understandable but a corruption of what he originally meant. In the medieval period he was a symbol and icon of charity. I am not sure that is true anymore; he seems to be a strange mixture of charity and rampant commercialism.

 

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    storbakken said,

    Thanks for your timely post. The real Nicholaus seems like a real inspiration. Too bad he’s been bogged down with elves and flying reindeer.


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