The Real Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas altarpiece

Gentile da Fabriano, St. Nicholas of Bari, 1425. Panel from the Quaratesi Polyptych. Tempera on wood, 200 × 60 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. In his right hand, St. Nicholas holds three golden balls, alluding to the episode of the three destitute maidens. His vestment is decorated with scenes from the life of Christ.

Santa Claus: fact, or fiction?

The answer is, a little bit of both. The Santa Claus of American lore is based on the real-life Nicholas of Myra, a Greek Christian living in Asia Minor during the third and fourth centuries. (Myra is modern-day Demre, Turkey.) Little is known for sure about St. Nicholas, but tradition tells us that he was born the only child of a wealthy, pious couple in a town called Patara. His parents died in an epidemic when he was young, after which he went to live with his uncle in a monastery. There he continued to grow in his knowledge of and love for Christ, and after some time, he was elected Bishop of Myra. He is most known for his acts of generosity, including anonymous gift giving, which gave rise to all the various December gift-giving traditions that are carried out throughout the world today.

The Provision of the Three Dowries

The most famous story associated with St. Nicholas is the story of his saving three impoverished sisters from a life of prostitution. Their father could not afford dowries for them, which made them unmarriageable, and it had come to the point where he could no longer support them. Out of desperation, he decided that the only thing left to do was to have them prostitute themselves, so then at least they could earn enough money to keep themselves clothed and fed. But Nicholas would not stand for this. Having heard of the family’s misfortune, he stole away under shade of night to their home and tossed a bag of gold through the girls’ bedroom window—which landed in the eldest daughter’s stocking (or some versions say shoe). The next morning, the family discovered the gift and rejoiced, for now the eldest daughter was able to get married. Another night soon thereafter, Nicholas visited the house again and threw another bag of gold through the window, which enabled the middle daughter to likewise marry. Wanting to figure out the source of these mysterious gifts, the father stayed up all night, night after night, until Nicholas returned again with a third bag of gold. This time, the father caught him after the act and thanked him profusely. Nicholas told him to direct his thanks to God instead, for it is God who provides, and not to tell anyone who the gifts had come from. 

St. Nicholas and the three maidens

Saint Nicholas saves the three virgin daughters, c. 1240. Detail from the East portal tympanum, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France. Photo: Mary Ann Sullivan.

The three gold bags

Radul, Nicholas gives dowry money, 1673-74. Fresco, Church of Saint Nicholas, Monastery of the Patriarchate of Pec, Kosovo.

This was not an isolated instance: it is said that Nicholas made secret visits to the open windows of needy folk throughout his lifetime, giving gifts and always refusing to be acknowledged. He said that he had no merit of his own, that he was just a dispenser of God’s grace.

Sometimes this grace was even dispensed through supernatural acts, the two most well-known being the multiplication of the grain and the resurrection of the three youths.

The Multiplication of the Grain

During a time of famine, some merchant ships en route to Constantinople stopped in Myra, carrying loads of grain. Wanting to spare his people from starvation, Nicholas asked the sailors to please unload some grain so that he could distribute it in the city; he assured them that when they reached their destination, all that was taken out in Myra would be restored. The sailors gave in to Nicholas’s demand, and indeed, he was right: the weighing-in of the delivery showed that not a single grain was missing! And through Nicholas’s act of boldness, and God’s miraculous cover-up, the people of Myra were able to survive the famine.

The Resurrection of the Three Youths

There are several variations of this story, but the gist of it is that three boys are murdered and their bodies thrown into a barrel of brine. Nicholas finds out about this horrific crime and makes haste to the site, where he prays over the barrel and thereby restores the boys to life. In some versions, the boys are college-aged students who stop at an inn on their way to the university and are murdered in their sleep by the innkeeper; motivation: robbery. In another version, the boys are just children, who wander off one day and get lost, only to run into an evil butcher, who lures them into his shop and then chops them up into pieces with the intention of passing them off as ham to his customers.

Resurrection of the Three Youth

Saint Nicholas with Three Children in a Pickling Tub, c. 1440-1450. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment (Bodleian MS Auct. D.2.11, fol. 50v).

Statue of St. Nicholas, France, 17th century.

Statue of St. Nicholas, France, 17th century.

Bicci di Lorenzo, Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths, 1433-35. Tempera and gold on wood, 30.5 x 56.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A heart for justice

Throughout his life, Nicholas showed deep compassion for and commitment to the people of Myra, advocating for their welfare in a number of ways. Besides securing food for them during a time of extreme scarcity (as told above) and giving away his entire inheritance, he is also said to have once saved the lives of three men who were wrongfully condemned just as the executioner was about to drop the sword, and also to have secured lower taxes for the people by arguing their case before Constantine. These actions were all motivated by his Christian faith.

Defender of the faith

While most people know about Nicholas’s reputation for being generous, few know of his fiery determination to preserve (and help codify) Christian orthodoxy. Nicholas lived during the Great Persecution under the Roman Emperor Diocletian and was therefore imprisoned and tortured for his beliefs. While in prison he never recanted but rather led prayer and worship services, and when he was released under Constantine, he set to work smashing pagan shrines in his zeal to purge the world of false religion. Nicholas was also involved in another major church historical plot point: in 325, he attended the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council, convened in large part to resolve theological disagreements regarding the relationship of God the Father to God the Son. Arius, the Bishop of Alexandria, controversially argued that the Son is a created being who is subordinate to the Father. Furious at what he (and the vast majority of the council) perceived to be heresy, Nicholas got up from his seat and slapped Arius across the face. Or so say some reports.

Nicholas’s signing of the Nicene Creed, the most foundational and widely used statement of faith in the Christian church, makes him one of the “founding fathers” of Nicene Christianity.

Life after death: St. Nick’s rise to fame

During his life, Nicholas’s fame was most likely confined to his local area. He would have been well respected in Myra because of his status as bishop and his community involvement. Historians typically don’t concede the possibility of miracles, so they say that the miracles attributed to him were later legendary developments. I don’t deny that the stories contain embellishments, but legends almost always contain at least some degree of truth, being based on real people and sometimes even on real events. Whether the stories of Nicholas’s various exploits were being told during his lifetime or only sometime later I don’t know; there’s no documentation of them until the Middle Ages.

However, we do know that by the sixth century—that is, only two hundred years after his death—his fame had spread: the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (d. 565) dedicated a church in Constantinople to him, and St. Chrysostom included his name in a liturgy. In the following centuries, churches sprung up all over the East and West in honor of him, artists depicted him in icons and dramas, Christians called on his name for protection, and his tomb in Myra became a site of pilgrimage, as it was said to excrete a sweet-smelling holy liquid, which his devotees call “manna,” that would heal anyone who touched it. In 1087, St. Nicholas’s remains were stolen and brought to Bari, Italy, to be interred in a new marble tomb inside a new, custom-built Romanesque church. Once his remains were deposited there, his tomb immediately started excreting the same manna and still does so to this day. Once a year, a priest collects the manna into a vial, mixes it with holy water, and distributes it to the faithful.

St. Nicholas does not have a date of formal canonization, but he is considered a saint by popular acclamation. December 6, the date of his death, has been celebrated as his feast day for over a thousand years, and as early as 1163, gift giving had come to be an integral part of that celebration, as a way of carrying on his legacy. The idea that St. Nick travels from house to house once a year, leaving gifts for children, originated in the Netherlands, where children leave their shoes out on December 5, St. Nicholas’s Eve, and awaken to find them filled with sweets and toys the next morning. In most parts of Europe, St. Nicholas Day is the primary gift-giving day rather than December 25.

St. Nick comes to America

When the Dutch settled New York in the seventeenth century, they brought their tradition of “Sinterklaas” (“Sinter” = saint; “klaas” = [Ni]cholas) with them, which melds together elements of the St. Nicholas legends and Norse mythology. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the figure of Sinterklaas mixed with other European Christmas traditions and New World commercial culture and literary imagination to form the Santa Claus we know today.

Illustration by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge depicting the evolution of the Santa Claus figure in America.

Illustration by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge depicting the evolution of the Santa Claus figure in America.

The spirit of St. Nick

Why spend time discussing St. Nicholas on a blog that’s supposed to be all about Jesus? Because St. Nicholas was a man who loved Jesus and who sought to model him in actions both big and small. His selfless, giving spirit, one that saw keenly into the needs of those around him, is the spirit of Christ, and it is this spirit that should pervade not only the Christmas season but the whole year long.

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3 Responses to The Real Saint Nick

  1. Pingback: Glass Screen at the Church of St. Nicholas, Islip | The Jesus Question

  2. Pingback: Christmas Roundup: The Polar Express, the Magi in art, the historical “Santa,” and more | The Jesus Question

  3. Pingback: Nicholas Mynheer’s Glass Screen at Islip | The Jesus Question

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