The modern Santa Claus is a mixture of symbols and legends built around a 4th century Saint with a fiery temper and an anti materialistic spirit. How this man, who was thin from being starved during religious persecution and exile, morphed into a rotund magic elf of consumerism and cookie consumption, is a pretty fascinating tale.
St. Nicholas was born around A.D. 270, and myth has it that he sprang from his mother into a full stand and immediately called out “God be glorified!’ To further demonstrate his piety, the infant let his mother and nursemaids know that he intended to fast every Wednesday, Friday, and any holy day.
His wealthy parents died when Nicholas was young, leaving him a large inheritance that he gave away in order abide by Jesus’ advice to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” There aren’t a lot of specific stories about his generosity, but one supposed instance explains why we hang stockings on our fireplace every Christmas Eve and ask them to be filled with stuff. It’s also an origin story for the three-ball symbol that indicates a pawn shop.
Nicholas is said to have heard about a man in his city of Myra, Lycia, with three daughters who was down on his luck and couldn’t afford dowries for them. The young ladies faced a fate of never marrying, and probably resorting to prostitution in order to survive. To save them from resorting to the oldest profession, St. Nick went to their house at night and threw three bags of gold through their window, which landed in their shoes. Some accounts of this story say he actually slipped down their chimney and left the gold in the stockings they had hanging there to dry. So, that’s why we hang elaborate and sturdy stocking-shaped things on our mantle and fill them full of gag gifts, trinkets, and candy.
Three circles, representing the three bags of gold, became a symbol for St. Nicholas, and when the 15th century Medicis formalized the modern pawn system in 15th century Italy to work around usury laws, they hung out this three-ball symbol in front of every pawn shop in honor of St. Nicholas. It’s unclear if he was considered the patron saint of pawnbrokers before or after this practice, but St. Nicholas and the three-ball symbol is still embraced by modern pawnbrokers.
Each story circulating around St. Nick seems more outrageous than the next, and several seem to be on par with miracles attributed to Jesus. During a famine, a Myra butcher is said to have murdered three young men, chopped them up, and pickled them. St. Nicholas sniffed out what happened, put these boys back together, and brought them back to life. This was way more complicated than Lazarus’ resurrection!
Also during a famine (not sure if it was the same one,) St. Nick outperformed Jesus’ loaves and fishes miracle when he negotiated with a cargo ship full of wheat to help feed the starving poor people of Myra. The sailors said they couldn’t spare any because Emperor Constantine was expecting a certain amount, but Nicholas told them that wouldn’t be a problem because no matter how much they gave Myra, their store would replenish itself. St. Nick took enough food to last his city several years, and the story goes that when the ship arrived in Constantinople, it made weight.
St. Nick has even done fantastical things after he died. According to one 9th century story, a demon disguised as an old woman appeared to a group of pilgrims traveling to Myra to visit St. Nicholas’ tomb. She asked them to take with them a flask of oil to light the lamps at the tomb. After they got on their ship, one of the pilgrims had a vision of St. Nicholas, who told them to cast the flask into the sea. When they did, the flask exploded and released a vile odor. As the passengers cowered on deck, St. Nick is said to have appeared to calm the sea and send the demon to the sea floor.
In the 11th century, the spirit St. Nicholas is said to have taught a French prior an extremely memorable lesson. Dom Ytherius didn’t want a history of Nicholas’s life and legend to be sung at his church. According to a Belgian order of monks’ version of this story, Dom Ytherius received a visit from St. Nicholas that night in bed. He was dragged onto the floor and whipped by the spirit of St. Nick, who sang the entire history to him while he assaulted him. He only stopped when prior Dom had learned all the words.
St. Nick was known to be a bit violent during his life as well. He was present at the 324 Council of Nicaea, where top Catholic officials were sorting out the Holy Trinity, and who is and who isn’t divine. St. Nicholas believed very deeply that Jesus was divine, so he got incensed by Arius from Alexandria, who presented the viewpoint that Jesus was not a god, but a prophet. When Nicholas heard that, he approached Arius and punched him in the face. Nicholas was immediately stripped of his bishop status, and his gospels and pallium (a cloak vestment that indicated his status as a bishop,) as punishment for the incident.
While church officials were offended by his behavior, Jesus and the Virgin Mary were not. St. Nicholas said they visited him and gave him back his stuff. When Constantine heard about this divine visitation, he reinstated St. Nicholas, and his views about the divinity of Christ made it into the Nicene Creed. His iconography also illustrates this visitation, with Jesus handing him his gospels on one side, and Mary handing him his pallium on the other.
Christianity was new in general during St. Nick’s time, especially in the Roman Empire. Where St. Nicholas lived in modern Turkey (Myra of Lycia,) they worshiped the Greek diety Artemis. During Emperor Diocletain’s reign from 284 to 305, the practice of Christianity was outlawed, and Nicholas was imprisoned for 12 years for refusing to renounce Christianity and his bishophood. Once he was released from prison under the rule of Christina Constantine, he had the temple of Artemis destroyed. When the priests of the temple begged for mercy, one account has St. Nicholas replying “Go to Hell’s fire, which has been lit for you by the Devil.”
After Nicholas’ death around 350 (on December 6th, the year changes, but the day never does,) his bones, which were now relics of great power and significance, became objects people would travel great distances just to be in the presence of. In 1087, a group of Italians from Bari made a 2,000 mile journey to get these precious bones away from Myra, which had been conquered by Muslims. His tomb had already been damaged, so the Italians were only able to get away with about half of his bones, which are still kept and on display today at Basilica di San Nicola in Bari. Every year on May 9th monks in Bari say they extract an oily, sweet-smelling water from his bones they call “manna.”
For centuries there were feasts for St. Nicholas on December 6th, but during the 16th century Reformation, celebration of St. Nick dwindled throughout Europe. The Dutch, however, remained steadfast to Sinterklaas (the Dutch pronunciation of St. Nicholas.) If The Netherlands had not kept up with the tradition of honoring St. Nicholas, and mixing it with bits and pieces of other folklore, the wild and crazy story of Santa Claus that permeates modern culture would not be. Of course, the real St. Nicholas would probably be appalled by what he now represents.
Further reading: The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please show your support by sharing this link. You can also support this blog and help it keep running by contributing to Patreon. Every share and cent is much appreciated!