The Real Santa Claus

Santa Claus was a real person -- well, sort of, at least in the sense that the legendary character was inspired by a real person.

St. Nicholas was born late in the third century, supposedly in the year 270, in the village of Patara in Lycia. At the time, Lycia was a Greek province of Asia Minor in what is now a southern coastal region in Turkey. St. Nicholas was raised a devout Christian by his wealthy parents until they succumbed to an epidemic, after which Nicholas used his inheritance to help the sick and less fortunate. Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra as a young man around 300 and served in that capacity until the year 341 A.D.  He was imprisoned by the Roman emperor Diocletian and tortured until released by Constantine. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea, which was responsible for the development of the Nicene Creed. There he strongly advocated acceptance of the Holy Trinity as part of Christian doctrine. Nicholas is believed to have destroyed many pagan temples, including the famous temple of Artemis.

He died on December 6, 343 A.D.  Originally buried in Myra (now Demne, Turkey), his remains were later moved to the Italian city of Bari. More than two thousand churches have been named for Nicholas. His bones or relics are said to emit a special substance called manna or myrrh, one of the numerous miracles attributed to him. 

Posthumously, Nicholas became the patron saint of Greece and is venerated in Russia as a miracle worker. He is renowned for his generosity to the needy, his love for children, and his concern for the safety of sailors. That much is believed true about the historical man now known as St. Nicholas.

The myths about St. Nicholas start there. His reputed generosity spawned the tale of a poor man with three daughters who couldn't afford a dowry and feared they would be forced into prostitution. The legend has it that on three different occasions, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold into a shoe through an open window, mysteriously providing a dowry for each. The story established the traditional perspective of Nicholas as a gift-giver. It started the tradition of children hanging their stockings or leaving their shoes by the hearth so St. Nicholas could leave a small gift for them. 

A more disconcerting tale involved Nicholas and the governor Eustathius, alleged to have taken a bribe to condemn three innocent men to death. Nicholas was said to have stayed the executioner's hand and rebuked Eustathius until he repented and admitted his crime. This legend began Nicholas's reputation as the patron saint for sufferers of judicial mistakes, thieves, and even murderers. 

Another grisly tale originating in France claims that three small children were lured and murdered by an evil butcher, but when the spirit of St. Nicholas appeared and appealed to God, the children were restored to life. This cemented Nicholas's reputation as the protector of children and a miracle-worker. Another story involving a miracle from St. Nicholas on behalf of a child is the tale of Basilios, who was kidnapped by Arab pirates from Crete on the eve of St. Nicholas's Day to become a slave. Nicholas is said to have magically appeared to the boy to whisk him back home in Myra using some sort of divine teleportation skills. These stories cemented Nicholas's role in Western lore as the chief protector of children.

Nicholas is said to have embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a young man. He calmed the seas during a rough storm en route, which led him to become the patron saint of mariners and seafarers. Other stories claim that Nicholas saved his people from famine and performed a number of miracles, which helped generate his long list of devoted followers.   

In short, Nicholas was an extraordinarily devout Christian man with a kind and generous heart who has become this legendary saint of heroic proportions. So how did he become the jolly fat man in the red suit we call Santa Claus? 

European immigrants with heavy accents who came to America brought the tradition of gift-giving inspired by St. Nicholas to the New World. Other immigrants wanting to participate in the celebration inquired about whom the gift-giving tradition honored and were told, "St. Nicholas." When pronounced by German immigrants, "Sankt Niklaus" phonetically evolved into "Santa Claus."

Thomas Nast first depicted him as a fat man in a red suit around the time of the Civil War. Over time, American artists such as Norman Rockwell and N. C. Wyeth "standardized" the appearance of the American Santa. In the 1930s, illustrator Haddon Sundblom began drawing advertisements for Coca-Cola featuring Santa Claus and established him as a commercial icon for the soft drink during the holiday season. Santa became the Real Thing for Coke over the next thirty-five years, firmly establishing the symbolic jolly fat man as a commercial icon.    

Over time, Santa Claus has become the secular symbol of Christmas. The popularity of the seasonal celebration led to elevated status for Chanukah on the Jewish calendar because Christians wanted to "share the wealth" and spirit of the season over religious boundaries. Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are more important holy days in the Jewish tradition, but come Christmastime, Chanukah gets special treatment some feel is unwarranted -- just to compete with Christmas, in a manner of speaking.

Kris Kringle also evolved from Christian roots to become a secular symbol of the holiday. The name is believed to be derived from "Das Christkind" -- "the Christ Child" in Austria -- originally promoted by Martin Luther to discourage the focus away from St. Nicholas and onto the baby Jesus. Christkindl is a diminutive version of the Christ figure, and Kris Kringle an Americanized spelling and variation of the word. The evolution of Christkindl to "Kris Kringle" was immortalized in the film A Miracle on 34th Street, as the character in the film discovered to be the "real" Santa Claus used that name when hired by Macy's department store.

Today, the battle is to keep "Christ" in Christmas. Many stores have instructed their employees to wish their customers "Happy Holidays" rather than the traditional Christmas greeting. A recent advertisement from Suntrust Bank wished their customers "Happy Holidays," "Happy Hanukah," and even "Happy Kwanzaa" -- not even a real holiday in Africa, but created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga for black Americans to have a holiday for themselves. From the same commercial, "Merry Christmas" was omitted, obviously due to political correctness. After all, December holidays of other religions wouldn't be celebrated with the same emphasis if it weren't for the festivities revolving around Christmas.

Europeans have continued to revere St. Nicholas as a Christian bishop and saint, but North Americans have slowly allowed St. Nicholas the pious man of God to become this secular symbol of extravagant gift-giving. Surely if Nicholas were alive today, he would be mortified to learn his that good deeds and pure intentions have morphed into a caricature of himself that has usurped the Christ child as "the" symbol of the season.

Merry Christmas.        

John Leonard can be reached at  His first book, titled Hybrid Theory: Reconciling Creationism and Evolution Theory, is pending publication by epress-online.
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