Most cultures that have been influenced by Christianity have some sort of magical or supernatural persona who gives out gifts to children on Christmas Day. Most of these figures trace back to Saint Nicholas, a 4th century CE bishop of Myra. His legend fused with other traditions, cultures and myths and eventually came to the United States by way of Dutch immigrants as Sinterklass. From there, he was commercialized into Santa Claus, and spread back across the Atlantic to his original homeland in Europe.
Now, the new Santa Claus figure has assimilated into many countries. He is known as Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) in Germany, Pére Noël in France, Father Christmas in Britain and Father Frost in Russia. The mythological (and often demonic) pagan beings of Krampus, and the Yule goat Joulupukki, have also been influenced and transformed by Santa Claus. Let’s not worry the kids, however, with all this talk about Santa Claus being fabricated—Jolly Saint Nicholas was, for the most part, a very real, historical figure. This is his story:
Saint Nicholas is a paradoxical figure. There is very little official information about his life, but legends, stories and tales about this interesting figure can be found in abundance. Similarly, there are no concise dates attributed to his life, but the events of his legend give a loose frame of time in which he lived.
As far as we know, St. Nicholas was likely born in the late 3rd century CE to Christian parents of Greek ethnicity who were living in Myra, on the southeastern coast of modern Turkey. While Nicholas was still a young boy, both of his parents died, leaving him orphaned. The young saint was sent down the coastline, with a sizable inheritance, to the neighboring community of Patara, where his uncle served as a bishop. The Bishop of Patara continued Nicholas’ education and set the saint on the path to priesthood.
In Patara, an event took place that would be one of the main tales that associated St. Nicholas with the act of anonymous gift giving. As the legend goes, a man in Patara lost his life’s savings and could find no way to make money to sustain himself and his three daughters. The man finally gave up on searching for honorable ways to produce new income and, in desperation, began to contemplate more crass avenues for procuring money. He became blinded by his distress, and lacking money to pay for his daughters’ dowries, he planned to press them into prostitution.
Nicholas heard of the man’s decision to tarnish his daughters for profit, and the saint immediately conceived of a plan to save the three girls. He withdrew enough gold from the inheritance left to him by his parents to pay three sizable dowries. Under the cover of night, Saint Nicholas snuck three individual bags of gold into the home of the Patara man who had planned to prostitute his children. With the saint’s generous anonymous gift, all three girls were able to find happy marriages and escape the stain of prostitution.
Depictions of Saint Nicholas carrying three bags also spawned other interpretations of the story. Another version claims that Nicholas resurrected three murdered children from the clutches of death, but the reader can decide which is the more plausible St. Nicholas story.
The Bishop of Myra
Nicholas’ generosity and virtuousness did not go unnoticed. He quickly ascended to a leadership position in the Christian church, and was likely the Bishop of Myra by the end of Emperor Diocletian’s reign from 284-305 CE. During Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, legend tells that St. Nicholas was arrested because of his high rank and leadership in the church.
Despite being tortured and imprisoned, St. Nicholas survived until Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) won control of the Roman Empire in its entirety in 324 CE. Constantine, unlike Diocletian, did not persecute Christians. Quite the opposite, he developed into a protector of Christianity. Though he did not convert until he was on his deathbed (and even that is debated), Constantine seemed to believe that the Christian God had been his patron during his civil war. In thanks, Constantine tolerated, and then showed favoritism, to Christianity in the Roman Empire.
With his victory in the civil war, Constantine spread his tolerance of Christianity to the eastern reaches of the empire, where St. Nicholas was being held. Nicholas was released, and the saint quickly entered into the debates and councils that would shape the religion of Christianity and establish its place in the Roman Empire.
Legend claims that St. Nicholas attended the 325 CE Council of Nicaea, that established the Nicaean Creed and decreed (with Constantine’s encouragement) that the Father, Son and Spirit of the Christian Trinity consist of the same ‘substance.’ Though the Council of Nicaea was made up of church patriarchs and bishops, and a person such as St. Nicholas would have been welcome, his name does not show in any records. The legends of the saint, nevertheless, claim that he was present for the Council of Nicaea.
St. Nicholas also debated against the heresy of Arius. The Arian (NO relation to Hitler’s Aryan race) version of Christianity disagreed with the Holy Trinity decided upon in the Council of Nicaea. While Nicaea claimed the members of the Trinity to be of equal substance and rank, the Arians believed there was more of a hierarchy to God and Jesus. Arius and his followers claimed that God, alone, was supreme, and that Jesus was a second-in-command demigod. The legends about St. Nicholas put him among the ranks of the many Christian bishops who debated and wrote against Arian beliefs. One account even claims that St. Nicholas may have slapped Arius during a heated argument. Despite constant chastisement from the early Catholic Church, Arianism continued to be popular among Roman Emperors and the kings of new kingdoms that arose after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
St. Nicholas also targeted the traditional religions of the Romans and Greeks. He supposedly closed, destroyed, or rebuilt Christian churches upon old pagan temples and shrines. He was also known to sometimes intervene in cases when imprisoned people were about to be executed—legends about the saint claim he chastised a governor who was going to wrongly execute prisoners, and even Emperor Constantine was apparently dissuaded from carrying out an execution after St. Nicholas appeared to him in a dream. Nicholas also supposedly brought about a few miracles during his life. One such tale claimed that the saint pacified a terrible storm, saving the lives of endangered sailors.
The Death of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas died in his hometown of Myra sometime in the middle of the 4th century. If you thought the legends and stories about Nicholas’ life were strange, the tales that came about after the saint’s death will likely be even more surprising.
After St. Nicholas’s dead body was entombed in Myra, the locals who cared for his grave noticed some really strange things. For one, his corpse was not decomposing like a normal dead body. The description of slow decomposition is actually not a very uncommon observation about saintly people. The inhabitants of Myra, however, claimed to witness even more bizarre and unique occurrences around St. Nicholas’ body. Legend claims that the corpse of St. Nicholas did not smell like a corpse at all, but rather had a pleasantly sweet aroma. The strangest account of St. Nicholas’ body is that an oily, or watery, substance began to appear around his body. Some accounts claimed that the ‘Manna of St. Nicholas,’ as it would later be called, was wept from his eyes, or just unexplainably pooled around his body. The people of Myra collected and tested the liquid, and concluded that the substance had medicinal and curative properties. Understandably, when news of sweet smelling corpse, and the mystically appearing manna, spread to the rest of Christendom, pilgrims began to flock to the tomb of St. Nicholas.
In the early 11th century the Byzantine Romans lost the tomb of St. Nicholas to the armies of the Turks. This caused a panic among those who venerated the saint. In 1087, a group of Italian sailors managed to seize what was left of the remains of St. Nicholas and smuggle the bones to Bari, where the remains of St. Nicholas still reside. When the relics were put to rest in Italy, once again, pilgrims to the saint’s remains continued to report a sweet smell and the presence of the liquid manna pooling around the bones of St. Nicholas. Besides being an ancestor of the modern Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is also a patron saint of children, sailors, Russia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lorraine, Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Top Picture Attribution: (Left: Santa Poster by the U.S. Food Administration. Educational Division. Advertising Section. (01_15_1918 – 01_1919), [Public Domain-US] via Creative Commons. Right: Image of St. Nicholas from the Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod, c. 1294, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
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- Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.