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How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus: One Theory
Zenit News Agency ^ | December 20, 2005

Posted on 12/20/2005 7:20:30 PM PST by NYer

Jeremy Seal on an Epic History

BATH, England, DEC. 20, 2005 ( The modern persona of Santa Claus is a far cry from its origins: St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra.

So how did he go from a charitable saint to an icon of Christmas consumerism?

Travel writer Jeremy Seal embarked on an international search to answer that question and recorded his findings in "Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus" (Bloomsbury".

Seal told ZENIT what he discovered tracking the cult of Santa Claus across the globe and why he thinks St. Nicholas and his charism of charity still resonate today -- despite the commercialization of Christmas.

Q: What inspired you to write this book? To what lengths did you go to research it?

Seal: I was drawn to this subject because I have children of my own, two girls who were 6 and 2 when I started this project. They reminded me how significant a figure Santa is to children.

I also was attracted to St. Nicholas because his story has an epic quality. I am a travel writer and was aware that in his posthumous evolution he made a strange journey from his beginnings in Turkey to Europe, Manhattan and the frozen north.

I went to all the places associated with Nicholas' life.

I began in Turkey where his original basilica stands in Myra, now Demre; followed his cult west to Bari, Italy, and north to Venice; then Amsterdam and plenty of other places in Europe; then on to Manhattan and eventually to Lapland in northern Finland and Sweden with my daughters last Christmas.

Q: Who was St. Nicholas of Myra?

Seal: We know very little about him. He was a fourth-century bishop of Myra, a town in southern Turkey now known as Demre. There are almost no references to his actual life except for a material reference in a sixth-century manuscript.

We're left with an almost entirely posthumous St. Nicholas. But because he was such a success posthumously, it suggests something in his life must have commended him; we don't know much about him but get the sense that he was a special person.

Nicholas seems to be a sensible person that made his name from giving material, practical assistance. That aspect has resonated through the ages because material assistance is something we all need and can relate to.

Q: What are some of his most remarkable deeds?

Seal: There are a whole range of stories, because he was unique in living a long life. During his time, most Christian saints were martyred, but Nicholas has lots of stories because he lived a long life and he died in his bed.

You can select any number of stories about him, but most have in common his bringing help to people.

There are endless stories of him saving sailors caught in storms off Myra. Once he persuaded the captain of a passing ship to bring his grain cargo to Myra where people were starving -- and the captain's cargo of grain was replenished.

Some falsely accused soldiers awaiting execution saw him in a vision; Nicholas comforted them and brought about their release.

When the idea of Nicholas reached Russia in the 11th century, a whole new range of stories popped up. Russians call him "ugodnik," which means "helper." In Russia, he helps in other ways: assisting shepherds in protecting their flock from wolves, protecting houses from being burned down, etc.

Q: What obstacles did the cult of St. Nicholas face through the centuries?

Seal: I think there are two particular areas.

First, from the eighth century onward, the area where he began in southern Turkey was increasingly under threat from advancing Muslims, who didn't have much interest in him.

Nicholas' relics were removed from Turkey in 1087 and were taken to Bari, Italy, which established him in Europe and allowed his cult to expand throughout the continent. It was an amazingly timely relocation because he was not to be marginalized in a future Islamic country; he could start again in Bari with a cathedral over his relics.

Second, the Reformation swept across Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and downgraded the significance of saints. I think he survived that because he had become a figure that had moved beyond the Church -- he had become a cherished member of the home.

Nicholas would come every Dec. 6 and bring gifts down the chimney to children in Northern Europe as early as the 14th century; he was popular and much loved. This seems to have given him and his cult a kind of resilience when elsewhere the images and statues of saints were being razed, burned or smashed.

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.

Q: What do you suggest faithful Christian parents tell their children about Santa?

Seal: What I have tried to do by tracing Santa back to his origin is remind myself there is a real moral point to gift giving. St. Nicholas' point was helping people when they were in a spot.

That is the lesson we can take out of this. Gifts just for the sake of giving to our loved ones who have enough may not reflect what St. Nicholas was all about.

How to frame questions about the significance of this man to children, I do not know.

I am a lapsed Anglican, but I find St. Nicholas fascinating from the intellectual and moral points of view. I love the wonderful moral material that he stands for, his active charity.

St. Nicholas appeals to anyone with any moral basis; no belief system can disagree with what he stands for.

He speaks to everyone because so much theology can be complex, but he and his stories are simple. I think that is why they have resonated for hundreds of years and why they had evolved into this family rite we practice with Santa Claus today.

TOPICS: Activism; Apologetics; Catholic; Current Events; Ecumenism; General Discusssion; History; Ministry/Outreach; Religion & Culture; Theology; Worship
KEYWORDS: christmas; faithandphilosophy; godsgravesglyphs; origins; santa; santaclaus; stnicholas; stnick; theory
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To: bornacatholic

Yeah, well, that's the Turks for ya!

21 posted on 12/21/2005 3:28:23 AM PST by Kolokotronis (Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!)
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To: xzins
I've got a list of signers of a document that is over 200 years old.

If you add Paul Bunyan to that list, what will that establish a thousand years from now?

22 posted on 12/21/2005 5:19:05 AM PST by Oztrich Boy (so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about - J S Mill)
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To: Oztrich Boy
St. Nicholas was a mythical character

Eh? Your proof? Are you talking about Santa Claus or St. Nicholas himself, a historical person?
23 posted on 12/21/2005 5:30:38 AM PST by Conservative til I die
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To: Oztrich Boy
If you add Paul Bunyan to that list, what will that establish a thousand years from now?

This is a new one. I've heard of people debating the merits of Santa Claus. Never heard anyone doubt the authenticity of St. Nicholas. Is your beef with his existence because he's been co-opted in a way into the Santa Claus character, or do you have a problem with the authenticity of any historical character from over 1,500 years ago?

Unfortunately, they didn't have back then, so it's not as if archived documentation is plentiful.
24 posted on 12/21/2005 5:34:02 AM PST by Conservative til I die
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To: Oztrich Boy
If you add Paul Bunyan to that list, what will that establish a thousand years from now?

This is a new one. I've heard of people debating the merits of Santa Claus. Never heard anyone doubt the authenticity of St. Nicholas. Is your beef with his existence because he's been co-opted in a way into the Santa Claus character, or do you have a problem with the authenticity of any historical character from over 1,500 years ago?

Unfortunately, they didn't have back then, so it's not as if archived documentation is plentiful.
25 posted on 12/21/2005 5:34:11 AM PST by Conservative til I die
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To: Oztrich Boy

But, Paul Bunyan IS NOT on the list.

Now, is the sentence above evidence in 2000 years that Paul Bunyan is not on the Declaration of Independence list if our civilization falls and this blurb of digits is discovered by some researcher many years from now?

26 posted on 12/21/2005 5:37:12 AM PST by xzins (Retired Army Chaplain and Proud of It!)
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To: NYer

When I was growing up I never believed in the Easter Bunny. The idea of a rabbit hiding eggs just seemed ridiculous to me.

Santa Claus however was a different story. A guy spending his entire year with a bunch of elves making toys and delivering all those toys throughout the world in one night by reindeer just seemed logical to me. I was devastated when I found out this wasn't true and probably explains my warp persona.

27 posted on 12/21/2005 6:08:34 AM PST by HarleyD ("Command what you will and give what you command." - Augustine's Prayer)
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To: Oztrich Boy
St. Nicholas was a mythical character

I think I'll join the crowd and ask what's the evidence for your assertion?

On one of the threads posted on his feast day there was an interesting comment that we remembered him for all those early centuries even though there is no written record of any of his deeds or even a bureaucratic record of his existence. Yet, he was still remembered in those early centuries. The gift giving as a symbol of the big Gift caught on very early. Even people outside his "hometown" attributed it to him. Being human, you'd think somebody would have tried to steal the idea and attribute it to "their" guy to embellish someone else's reputation.

It really isn't any surprise that no written record exists that mentions him. If any written records of a bishop outside the largest cities, that's a pleasant surprise. Does any record of any bishops of Myra after Nicholas' time exist? How about any record of the leaders of the seven churches written to in Revelation, also from what is now Turkey? Consider the history of conquest of the area in the following centuries. Maintaining written records was probably not high on the 'to do' list when people were trying to survive back and forth conquest.

Yeah, there is no written record. Everybody has openly acknowledged that right from the start. The same is true for the bulk of humanity. That does not mean they did not exist.

28 posted on 12/21/2005 6:22:30 AM PST by siunevada
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To: Oztrich Boy

You're forgetting that the Roman persecutions, as well as wars and other chaotic events, destroyed historical documents.

29 posted on 12/21/2005 6:23:07 AM PST by Pyro7480 (Sancte Joseph, terror daemonum, ora pro nobis!)
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To: bornacatholic
the local Turkish Santa Claus association handed out its annual Santa Claus Peace Prize to Jeannine Gramick, an American Catholic nun, who was being acknowledged for her ardent defence of gay and lesbian rights, Turkish newspaper Radical reported.

Oops, better not let the Salafis get a toehold in their town or it's 'off with their heads' for the local association. Perhaps they'd like to institute a Gay Pride parade and see how that works out for them. That could be a riot.

30 posted on 12/21/2005 6:30:16 AM PST by siunevada
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To: HarleyD
But he is real!! Check him out here ...


31 posted on 12/21/2005 6:44:48 AM PST by NYer ("Socialism is the religion people get when they lose their religion")
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To: NYer
LOL!!! Can I have Michelangelo’s The Pieta for Christmas??? I think my wife would find David a little too much for the living room.
32 posted on 12/21/2005 7:07:43 AM PST by HarleyD ("Command what you will and give what you command." - Augustine's Prayer)
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To: Oztrich Boy
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

You don't think rising from the dead is "legendary?" Did not the Roman guards, in the Gospel accounts, say: "Truly this was the Son of God!"

And yet, so little is written by the Romans of this every happenening.

If you're going to use that logic, you must apply it to every historical figure.
33 posted on 12/21/2005 7:49:46 AM PST by mike182d ("Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?")
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To: Larry Lucido
Is that like knights having to go to knight school?

Garde la Foi, mes amis! Nous nous sommes les sauveurs de la République! Maintenant et Toujours!
(Keep the Faith, my friends! We are the saviors of the Republic! Now and Forever!)

LonePalm, le Républicain du verre cassé (The Broken Glass Republican)

34 posted on 12/06/2006 11:41:12 AM PST by LonePalm (Commander and Chef)
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To: LonePalm
American Catholic’s Saint of the Day


December 6, 2006
St. Nicholas
(d. 350?)

The absence of the “hard facts” of history is not necessarily an obstacle to the popularity of saints, as the devotion to St. Nicholas shows. Both the Eastern and Western Churches honor him, and it is claimed that, after the Blessed Virgin, he is the saint most pictured by Christian artists. And yet, historically, we can pinpoint only the fact that Nicholas was the fourth-century bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor.

As with many of the saints, however, we are able to capture the relationship which Nicholas had with God through the admiration which Christians have had for him—an admiration expressed in the colorful stories which have been told and retold through the centuries.

Perhaps the best-known story about Nicholas concerns his charity toward a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters of marriageable age. Rather than see them forced into prostitution, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through the poor man’s window on three separate occasions, thus enabling the daughters to be married. Over the centuries, this particular legend evolved into the custom of gift-giving on the saint’s feast. In the English-speaking countries, St. Nicholas became, by a twist of the tongue, Santa Claus—further expanding the example of generosity portrayed by this holy bishop.


The critical eye of modern history makes us take a deeper look at the legends surrounding St. Nicholas. But perhaps we can utilize the lesson taught by his legendary charity, look deeper at our approach to material goods in the Christmas season and seek ways to extend our sharing to those in real need.


“In order to be able to consult more suitably the welfare of the faithful according to the condition of each one, a bishop should strive to become duly acquainted with their needs in the social circumstances in which they live.... He should manifest his concern for all, no matter what their age, condition, or nationality, be they natives, strangers, or foreigners” (Decree on the Bishops' Pastoral Office, 16).

35 posted on 12/06/2006 11:48:39 AM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: NYer

Saint Nicholas


First Thursday of Advent

Isaiah 26:1-6
Psalm 117: 1, 8-9, 19-21,25-27a
Matthew 7:21, 24-27

Saint Nicholas Between East and West

The Church in East and West commemorates today Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker. The very first journey of Pope Benedict XVI as Supreme Pontiff in May 2005 was to the southern Italian port city of Bari, home to the relics of Saint Nicholas. At the time, few American Catholics realized the profound significance of that gesture. Orthodox Christians, however, were sensitive and attentive to the presence of the Pope in a city that John Paul II had called “a bridge to the East.”

The Slammer of Heretics

Saint Nicholas is celebrated for his role at the First Council of Nicaea. According to legend, he became so incensed upon hearing the views of Arius that he rushed over to the hapless heretic and gave him a mighty blow on his ears, sending him sprawling. That, of course, was when the testosterone of Catholic bishops was proportionate to their orthodoxy.

Saint Nicholas at the Altar

To my mind, the most important thing to remember about Saint Nicholas is the spirit of godly fear and adoration with which he stood before the Holy Altar at the moment of the Divine Liturgy. Everything else in his life — including the countless miracles attributed to him — flowed from the Holy Mysteries. The Divine Liturgy served by Saint Nicholas must have been like the Mass of Padre Pio. While the holy gifts were being carried in procession to the altar, the people sang of Our Lord’s Eucharistic advent among them: “We who mystically represent the Cherubim, who sing to the life–giving Trinity the thrice holy hymn, let us now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all who comes escorted invisibly by Angelic hosts. alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

The Saints in Advent

Saint Nicholas and the other saints of Advent surround the Eucharistic Advent of the Lord just as they will surround Him with the angels in the glory of His Advent at the end of time. How important it is to acknowledge the saints of Advent, to seek their intercession, to rejoice in their lives. Those who would banish the saints from the celebration of the Advent liturgy are misled and mistaken. The mission of the saints of Advent is to prepare us for the coming of Christ: for His final advent as King and Judge, yes, but also for His humble daily advent hidden under the species of bread and wine. In no way do the saints detract from the intensity of the Advent season. Each of them is given us as a companion and intercessor, charged with making ready our hearts for the advent of the Bridegroom–King.

Saint Nicholas in New Amsterdam

Saint Nicholas arrived in America with the Protestant Dutch settlers in 1624 in what was then called New Amsterdam. As much as the gloomy Protestant Reformation in Holland tried to suppress the cult of the Saints, the Dutch would not give up their beloved Saint Nicholas. Dutch customs, expressions, and even language persisted in New York right into the opening years of the last century, but by that time others had come through Ellis Island, New York’s port of entry — Italians, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Greeks. They came bringing icons of Saint Nicholas lovingly wrapped in the trunks that contained all their worldly possessions. They came bringing prayers to Saint Nicholas learned as little children, and armed with a confidence in the intercession of Saint Nicholas that withstood poverty, prejudice, hunger, sickness, and all the vicissitudes of a new life in a strange land.

Saint Nicholas the Glorious Patron and Wonderworker

Saint Nicholas has always had enormous appeal. He is recognized as the patron saint of more causes than of any other saint, of classes of people, cities, churches, and whole nations. He is the patron saint of thieves — not because he helps them to steal — but because he helps them to repent and change; of pawnbrokers and bankers because he knew how to use gold in the service of compassion and charity; of pharmacists, fisherman, lawsuits lost unjustly and the lawyers who lost them, prisoners, orphans, prostitutes, unmarried men, scholars, haberdashers, and bishops. He is best known as the patron saint of children, especially children who are threatened by the circumstances of a troubled family life, or by abuse.

Saint Nicholas and Priests

I like to think of Saint Nicholas also as a patron and friend of priests. More than ever before it is crucial that priests place themselves under the protection of the saints and live in their friendship. Saint Nicholas has much to teach priests: passionate devotion to Christ true God and true Man; compassion for the poor; and the courage to defend children from all dangers of body and soul. Thursday is a day of intercession for priests. Pray to Saint Nicholas today for all priests, but especially for those who have grown fainthearted and weary, and for those attacked by the noonday devil. It saddens me to hear the carping commentaries on the plight of the Connecticut priest who was sentenced to three years in prison in Federal Court in New Haven on Tuesday. How many of those who make smug remarks about the wrongdoing of Father Fay, and persist in recounting the juicy details of his downfall, are willing to spend an hour, or two, or three in reparation before the Eucharistic Face of Our Lord on his behalf?

Saint Nicholas and the Eucharistic Advent of Christ

Saint Nicholas is present to us today. He will accompany me to the altar, taking his place there among the other saints and angels invisibly present in every Mass. More than anything else, I would ask Saint Nicholas to open the eyes of our souls to the Eucharistic advent of Christ. If we are prepared for Christ’s coming in the Holy Mysteries, we will be prepared for His final coming in glory. One who lives from one Holy Mass to the next need not fear the Day of the Lord. Glorious Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, pray for us that we may be made worthy of the advent of Christ.

36 posted on 12/06/2007 10:11:47 PM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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 GGG managers are SunkenCiv, StayAt HomeMother & Ernest_at_the_Beach
Thanks NYer.

Note: this topic is from 12/20/2005.

Blast from the Past.

Just adding to the catalog, not sending a general distribution.

To all -- please ping me to other topics which are appropriate for the GGG list.

37 posted on 07/01/2012 6:45:26 AM PDT by SunkenCiv (
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