Kriss Kringle, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, Père Noël, Noel Baba, Father Christmas, Pelznichol, Nicolò, Nick, Nicola di Bari, Nicolaus thaumatourgos, and the myroblyte. Here is just a few examples of the names for the famous yet mysterious St. Nicholas. Yesterday (December 6.) was the Saint’s feast day.
If you have ever doubted the existence of the elusive character that is Santa Claus (Santa [Ni]claus). There is some good news for you; firstly, you are not the only one (historians, mainly of the early 20th century doubted the saint’s historicity) and secondly, in the last century the case of his existence has grown largely in favour of his historicity. He is none other than, St. Nicholas of Myra (Myra being the place of his ministry). The reason for this confusion is largely due to the lack of writings by Nicholas himself and also some confusion with him and another Nicholas (St. Nicholas of Sion). This conflation of the two Nicholas’ occurs mainly due to the 10th century historian Symeon Metaphrastes. The two Nicholas’ were geographically close but Nicholas of Myra, lived two centuries earlier. (One main reason for the confusion by Symeon, is because Nicholas of Sion travelled to the church where Nicholas of Myra was buried, to be ordained by another bishop called Nicholas, both also have death dates around the same time of year Nicholas of Myra (Dec. 6) and Nicholas of Sion (Dec. 10)). The certainty of Nicholas of Myra’s historicity is largely due to his bones being found and examined in May 1953, by the University of Bari’s anatomy professor Luigi Martino. In terms of historical data the work of Father Gerardo Cioffari, who was able to locate and present evidence not only of Nicholas of Myra’s life but also his deeds, and has a built a case with a high degree of probability that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea.
Born around 260 A.D., St. Nicholas (Nikòlaos – ‘victory of the people’) was born in Patara, in south west Turkey. During this time the name Nicholas was virtually unknown, but after the death of Nicholas of Myra the name became extremely popular (expanding from the region of his birth and ministry outwards). Nicholas was the only child of Christian parents.He was remembered as a devout believer even as a child. His childhood took place during a time of Roman persecution against the Christian Church (Christianity was considered illegal, until later on in his lifetime). Yet his parents were fortunate enough to be moderately wealthy and were able to afford Nicholas an education. He was known to be generous and virtuous early on in life. Roughly around the age of 18, Nicholas lost both his parents (though we are not told how they died, we do know there was a plague around this time, around where he lived).
It is with the death of his parents, that leads us to Nicholas’ most famous deed. Having received his inheritance, Nicholas was unsure on how to use it. An early biographer of Nicholas, Michael the Archimandrite tells us that Nicholas, being largely inspired by biblical passages such as Proverbs 11:17, Matt 25:34 and many others, sought to help those in need. We are told that Nicholas upon hearing about the plight of a local family, who’s father was planning to sell his three daughters into slavery (a desperate, but unfortunately common custom in Antiquity). Nicholas decided to use his inheritance not only to save the family from selling their daughters but to give enough so that each daughter could have a dowry for marriage. On three separate nights, Nicholas threw into the family’s window a bag of money for each daughter. On the third night, Nicholas was about to give the money for the third and youngest daughter, when the father caught him and thanked him. Nicholas begged the father not to mention who had helped his daughters until Nicholas’ life had ended. Later retellings of this story, added certain elements that you may recognise in your christmas traditions. For example, one later retelling mentions that Nicholas unable to find an entrance to leave the money, dropped the money down the house’s chimney and was caught in one of the daughter’s stockings.
Other elements of St. Nicholas’ life that have been transformed into the modern telling of Santa Claus, such as his association with children. Later legends based on St. Nicholas include one of St. Nicholas saving a young boy called Adeodatus after he was captured by the Babylonian king Marmorinus. Historically, his miraculous story of his ordination as a bishop at a young age (in contrast to other bishops) led him to be called the ‘boy bishop’ and for a brief time celebrations of his feast day included a young boy being ordained bishop for a short period of time (this was quickly scrapped!). Gift giving to children was also typical throughout history to celebrate his feast day.
But Nicholas was popular for reasons other than that famous story of the three daughters. He found purpose in spiritual labour and sought ‘the fruit of justice’. His biographer mentions “Justice and greater justice came from Nicholas”. He was also a defender of the Christian faith and became a “Confessor”. A ‘Confessor’ was a Christian who is tortured but does not give in to his persecutors demand. Writings of the Council of Nicaea mention that many of those who attended showed evidence of torture, but Nicholas was known for having some of the most severe. Damage found on his bones in 1953 also suggest possible injuries done to Nicholas (though other reasons could be given). He was also famously known for slapping the Bishop Arius during the Council of Nicaea, Arius’ was found to be teaching heresy during this Council (apparently for uttering blasphemy). Though, he was also known for his gentleness to those he opposed. Other sympathisers of Arius, Theognis, Bishop of Nicaea and Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia both received a string of letters gently engaging them on the question of orthodoxy and both ended up rejecting Arius teachings and endorsed the Council’s conclusion on the matter. (This episode sheds some doubt on the slapping of Arius, but the story is so famous it is actually painted on the ceiling in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari).
Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist from Manchester University used Luigi Martino’s data from the 50’s and a generated a three-dimensional reconstruction of St. Nicholas’ face (posted below)
Most common present depictions of Santa Claus were actually produced by Coca-Cola in the 1930’s (hence his costume are the same colours as the Coca-Cola label). It was created by an artist called Haddon Sundblom
Santa Claus’ name derives from a large history of changes. Santa means Saint and Claus is a breakdown of Nicolaaus (which is Dutch for Nicholas)
For Further reading:
Check – Adam C. English’s The Saint Who would be Santa Claus