Skip to comments.How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus: One Theory
Posted on 12/20/2005 7:20:30 PM PST by NYer
Jeremy Seal on an Epic History
BATH, England, DEC. 20, 2005 (Zenit.org).- 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.
St. Methodius asserts that "thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison", but says nothing of his presence at the Council of Nicaea in 325. According to other traditions he was not only there but so far forgot himself as to give the heresiarch Arius a slap in the face.
I always heard it was a punch in the nose. Arius had it coming.
St. Nicholas was a mythical character
I just had a nephew born about two hours ago. They named him Nicholas. Great patron saint.
I don't think so. Wheeler & Rosenthal in their "Saint Nicolas: A Closer Look at Christmas" give some details about the historicity of St Nicolas in their first chapter.
Many of the acts attributed to Nicolas are probably embellished, but not all.
The 151st attendee listed in an AD 510 manuscript of attendees of the Council of Niceae was "Nicolas of Myra of Lycia."
A neat link: A Nicolas Timeline
St. Nicholas wasn't from Smyrna. St. Polycarp was.
"St. Nicholas was a mythical character"
Oh, no, my friend, very, very real.
185 years later. How about a more contemporary reference that he even existed? I'd expect someone would have mentioned the Man Who Punched Out Arius.
Or the Church at Myra was enmbarssed they didn't have a Bishop at the time of Nicea and invented one.
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Tell that to Arius and his broken nose.
That form specifying the imjuries for the award of Arius's Purple Heart appears to be missing
It is interesting to note that only a few cultures refer to the Christmas gift-giver character as St. Nicholas or a derivation therefrom. Germanic tradition calls this figure "Christkindl" (Lit. Christ Child) which has been corrupted in the US to "Kris Kringle", others have a tradition of the Magi delivering gifts. A majority of Europe, if I'm not mistaken, uses a name like "Father Christmas" or "Old Man Christmas" that is not based on a historic figure at all. Any thoughts or comments?
Never mind the Romans wr to Jesus. We are talking about what the fellow bishops of "Nicholas of Myra" would have written.
He. Punched. Arius. He's like a legend!
But. no mention.
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Thanks for this informative post. And thanks to the mods for the Merry Christmas link too.
I never had a problem telling my child that Santa Claus was real. A child can easily understand such "shape shifting" as St. Nicholas underwent. It is important that they understand he was a real person, who was holy and helped those in need. It is the most important thing, actually.
Our little Christmas tree is filling my heart with joy this year. A lovely little tree, and it has come into my life at a time of great stress and disruption. To me, this little tree is truly a gift from St. Nicholas, a little mini-miracle.
Thanks again for this thread, and Merry Christmas all!
I've got a list of signers of a document that is over 200 years old.
Does that invalidate the Declaration of Independence as being factual? :>)
Now, if someone finds this post a thousand years from now, is it evidence that there were signees to the Declaration of Independence?
I'm sure he had to go to Santa Claus school, just like all the other Santas.
*We Christian Dhimmi in America pay the Jizya to Turkey and for our stupitidy and timidity and indifference we get the basilica turned into a museum where no Mass is permitted but the local Mufti can mill around...
Church of St Nicholas open to local mufti, but closed for mass on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas
Although the church belongs to the Orthodox Patriarchate, the authorities have turned it into a museum where the Eucharist cannot be celebrated. The local mufti can however use it for his Santa Claus association.
Demre (AsiaNews) In a warm and fertile land where a turquoise sea gently splashes against a beautiful shoreline rises a small Turkish town, Demre, which would have been lost to history were it not for the fact that it once was the Episcopal See of Saint Nicholas, the same Saint Nicholas whose venerated mortal remains now lay in the Cathedral of Bari (southern Italy), the same Saint Nicholas known to the many as Saint Nick, Old Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, Santy, or simply Santawhose home is usually given as either the North Pole in the United States (Alaska), northern Canada, Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland, Dalecarlia in Sweden, or Greenland, depending on the tradition and country, the same old, bearded man who on Christmas Night travels the world in his red and white costume bringing gifts to children.
According to one tradition in fact, the practice of gift-giving comes directly from Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who put three bags of gold in stockings left to dry belonging to three young women, who had no dowry, so that their father may not sell them into prostitution.
A recently renovated church in Demre is dedicated to the same Saint Nicholas, a church, according to tradition, that was built in the 4th century, when the town was called Myra and Saint Nicholas was its bishop.
Despite complaints, the church has now become a museum open to the local mufti and his Santa Claus Association but closed to the Eucharist by a decision of the local authorities. Gone is also the statue of the Saint.
The Saint, who was buried in the church until a group of merchants from Bari spirited his remains away in 1087, had fame as a thaumaturge, drawing pilgrims and believers from around the region.
According to ancient chronicles, pilgrims came to the shrine, poured oil into the tomb and collected it after it was sanctified by contact with the Saints bones so that it could be used on the sick.
Today, although the building is the property of the Greek Orthodox Church (but known to local Turks as the Santa Claus Church), it is used as a museum. The Saints sarcophagus may be empty but tourists are charged a fee to visit the burial chapel
And it is this church, the church of the bishop of Myra, famous for his generosity and piety that has become a bone of contention and a source of conflict.
The statue of Saint Nicholas, a bag full of gifts over his shoulder, surrounded by children, which was a gift of the Russian Orthodox Church, no longer stands in the square in front of the building. It has been replaced since last spring by order of the towns mayor, Suleyman Topcu, with a modern and multicoloured painting of Santa Claus.
Furthermore, for the past two years, the Eucharistic celebration has been banned on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas.
Yesterday, the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, Orthodox Christians had to meet in a private home for mass despite repeated formal requests by Patriarch Bartholomew I they be allowed to use the church.
The church-turned-museum was instead made available to the citys mufti who had organised a prayer for peace during which, and this takes the cake, 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.
In her acceptance speech, the 63-year-old nun asked for forgiveness for the Pope and believers who do not respect homosexuals.
Local Christians were left dumbfounded and baffled over what the Turkish state is trying to achieve with such impudent and contradictory actions.
*They steal our Basilicas, deny us Eucharist and reward heretical crackpots and we just smile and keep giving the bastards Jizya.
I am waiting for a warrior Pope...Deus Vult