This Christmas, We Need a Visit from the Real Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas was born in the third century, to an affluent family in Patara, a Greek city in the Roman province of Lycia, in modern-day Turkey.

Nicholas was a priest during the reign of Diocletian (reigned 286-305), an emperor who embarked upon a vigorous persecution of Christians in 305. Diocletian was succeeded in the eastern half of the Empire by Galerius (r. 305-311), who continued the persecution, although he issued an edict of toleration before he died.

It was in this era that Nicholas became bishop of Myra. His name, Nikolaos, is Greek for “Victor of the People,” apt for a time when Christians triumphed over the militantly secular authorities of the Roman state.

Being a man of no little wealth but of far from little charity, it was said that on one occasion, Nicholas tossed three bags of gold coins into the home of a man whose three daughters needed dowries if they were not to be forced into prostitution. It is said that this is the origin of the three gold balls that traditionally were hung over the doors to pawnshops. Another trinity-related story connected to Nicholas was that a butcher, wanting to profit from a famine, killed three men (or boys), then pickled and barreled them for sale. Nicholas saw through the crime, prayed, and the three were returned to life.

Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors. One story has him rescuing a sailor who fell from the rigging when he was on a voyage home from studies in Alexandria. Another has him praying for sailors on a vessel in shoal waters, saving them from being wrecked on the rocks.

Fast forward a dozen centuries and the Dutch were the leading seafaring nation of Europe. Despite their militant Calvinism, they seem to have retained a reverence for the patron saint of seamen. He was brought to New Netherland by colonists who continued to celebrate his feast day of December 6, the anniversary of his death.

The Dutch settlers and their English neighbors had an uneasy coexistence, one problem being communication.  The former, it seems, regarded their New England neighbors as being excessively cheap; they would charge a customer for anything, even cheese in a Bay Colony overstocked with cattle when the English Civil War slowed the migration on which farmers relied for profits. The Dutch nickname for the Puritans came across as something like John (Jan) Cheese, which became “Yankees.” And the Dutch name for St. Nicholas came across to the English as Sant Niklas, to become Santa Claus.

The Puritans may have had little inclination to celebrate the saint, but migrants to the later English province of New York were not similarly disposed. It was there that the gift-giving aspect of Santa took root. In Washington Irving’s partially accurate History of New York (1809), Santa arrives on horseback on the evening of December 6. The image proved popular, leaving Clement Clark Moore, a professor of Greek and Hebrew, to write “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for his family at Christmas, 1822. It was published anonymously shortly afterwards. Moore did not acknowledge his authorship until 1837.

The illustrator Thomas Nast, whose caricatures of drunken Irishmen and Boss Tweed appeared in the pages of Harper’s Weekly between the 1860s and 1880s, has Santa giving out presents to Union Army troops at Christmas, 1862. Nast’s pen produced several dozen images of Santa in this time, in the course of which Santa was given a shop for making toys which seems to have become located at the North Pole.

Fifty years after Nast, 1931 color magazine ads for Coca Cola gave us the image of Santa that we have today. In 1939, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed reindeer was given life by ads for Montgomery Ward.

Through a millennium and a half, then, Saint Nicholas has been transformed from a saintly priest of unknown stature, a charitable man who performed miracles. He has become a bearded, jolly old man in a red coat whose seasonal occupation is to seat little kids on his lap in shopping malls, there to encourage the parents to buy more toys than the little ones could ever need. The only known instance of defiance of this job requirement is that by the character portrayed by Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

Santa is said to make the toys at a shop that must lie atop Arctic Ocean ice at the location where all meridians converge, and the miracle that he performs is to somehow deliver all the toys to good little girls and boys all over the planet at Midnight on Christmas Eve.

Kids eventually discover that there is no Santa Claus, but it seems that recent generations of them retain the belief that, simply by existing, they will have goodies given to them. Their new benefactor is a different bearded old man, Uncle Sam in this instance.

Over the centuries, the Saint Nicholas who led the faithful when a belligerent, anti-Christian government that punished believers has been forgotten. Perhaps now is time for that aspect of his story to receive renewed attention.

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