He’s a fat man in a red suit and a white beard. He is in the Guiness Book of World Records as being the undisputed king of breaking and entering. Nobody else comes close. He has a thing for chimneys. His pets fly. His most famous quote is “Ho, ho, ho.” He loves giving presents to kids and can never say no to stealing milk and cookies found laying around near fireplaces. He killed grandma. He performed a Miracle on 34th street a few decades back. There are very few people in history more famous. Still, most people who know of him don’t realize that he actually did exist and isn’t just a character of fiction invented around the same time as King Arthur and Merlin were. It is time to pull the fake beard off this impostor and find out who the real man was. What better time to do it than today, December 6’th, Saint Nicholas’ Day?
Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas are both transliterations of the Dutch Sinterklaas and Sint Nicolaas. Both of these are actually transliterations, a few languages removed from Saint Nikolaos. Yes, the man behind the myth did really exist and his biggest claim to fame outside becoming jolly old St Nick (and also the patron saint of Russia) is for punching a man in the mouth. That’s right Santa punched a guy right in the face. He even got jail time for it. But let’s back up a little bit.
Nikolaos was born in 270 AD to Epiphanius (or Theopanes) and Johanna (or Nonna) in the city of Patara. This place still exists today along the coast of Southwest Turkey and is famous for its beaches and its ancient ruins. He was named after his uncle. When he was still a young child his parents died of a plague. At that time orphaned Nik went to live with that uncle who happened to be the Bishop of Patara. It was here that young Nik entered the church and became a priest.
Even from this early age the legends start to build on his generosity. I have heard it said that his parents were merchants and they had a hated rival also living in the same town. When the parents died, Nik became fairly wealthy but the same epidemic also financially ruined their rival. One day Nik was returning to the church, his new home, when he overheard this rival lamenting his misfortune. This man no longer had the means to provide a dowry for his three daughters who were soon to marry. Saint Nik liquidated his assets and divided it up in thirds. Shortly before each of these daughters was to be married, he anonymously gave a third of his inheritance to the father to be used as the dowry. Of course, there is no way to verify the truth of this story, but it does fit in well with his known true character. He was famous for his giving when he later became bishop so I would like to believe that this first story is based to some degree on real events.
Nikolaos is also the patron saint of merchants and travelers. There are two different legends to explain why this is so. In the first of these, while still a priest before becoming bishop of Myra, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the return journey a violent storm came up on the Mediterranean and everyone thought they would be lost at sea. Without fear or panic, Nik simply knelt down in the center of the boat and the seas immediately were made calm. The other legend takes place when he was traveling to Athens. Nik stops for the evening at the home of an evil innkeeper. Just a short time before this innkeeper robbed and murdered three other travelers and their bodies were hidden in a “pickling tub” (more likely a fermenting vat). That evening Saint Nik has a dream of the murder and is so distraught he begins to pray. As he does so God restores these boys to life and health and the evil innkeeper is caught.
We don’t know specifics about Nik from the time of persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. All we know is that he was already bishop at this time in Myra and that he spent a significant chunk of time in prison. It is said that during this period of persecution there so many bishops, priests, and other Christians in the prison system that many cities had to release true criminals in order to make more room. Nikolaos continued to serve God faithfully through this time and he grew to be a well known and respected bishop/ He was called upon among many others to join the counsel at Nicea that was supposed to put an end to the Arius/Athanasius debate. Interestingly enough the oldest known Christmas songs (songs celebrating the birth of Christ) were created at this time by one side or another to help popularize their position on the true nature of Christ.
During this debate Arius was standing and defending his position when Nik could take it no longer. He decided to interrupt the process by forceful means. The way I almost always hear it was that a reasoned dialogue was going on when he just walks up and punches Arius out of the blue. My guess is that this “reasoned dialogue” was quite similar to that commonly found today in Parliaments world over. However it happened, Nikolaos was thrown in jail and also stripped of the two signs of his bishopric (his copy of the New Testament and his vestments). Here is where history fades back into myth. The story continues on that while Nik was in prison Jesus visited him and asked why he was in chains. He responds: “Because I love you.” Then Jesus gives Nikolaos another copy of the New Testament and Mary also appears to give him his vestments. In the face of this miracle, an angry Constantine could do nothing and he was restored to his bishopric in Myra.
The last question I would like to tackle is how this short tempered yet God fearing and generous man ended up morphing into the jolly old man riding a sleigh and bringing toys to kids. How did a Greek bishop with a mean right hook living in a warm coastal Mediterranean town end up living in the North Pole and becoming so closely tied in to a winter holiday?
Well, he was always associated with gift giving but it was only after the reformation that the man and the legend truly began to separate. As the saints of the Catholic church became unpopular in Northern Europe, other characters like “Old Man Christmas”, “Christkind”, and “Kris Kringle” were invented to take their place as gift bringers. Then during the Victorian area, many of the early stories of Saint Nick were discovered and merged into the newer holiday legends. It was at this time when “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written and the actual events of Santa’s life as we know it today are set in stone. The imagery itself gradually morphed from that time to this but by the start of the 20’th century most people’s image of Santa was pretty much the same as we now know him. He didn’t actually set down roots in the North Pole until the late 1920’s. Before then, when kids wrote to Santa those letters were addressed to random places like “Ice Street”, “Cloudville”, and even “Behind The Moon”.
Do I believe in Santa Claus? Yes, I do. He was a good, generous, godly man who never pulled his punches when defending the true nature of Christ. He was an inspiration for the kindness and generosity for millions of people over thousands of years. Besides, he’s got a dozen flying reindeer. How cool is that?