Remembering the actual guy whom Santa Claus is based upon.
Whenever kids ask me whether Santa Claus is real, I’ll point out he is based on an actual guy. That’d be Nikólaos of Myra, whose feast day is today, 6 December, in honor of his death on this date in the year 343.
Here’s the problem: There are a whole lot of myths mixed up with Nicholas’s life. And I’m not just talking about the Santa Claus stories, whether they come from Clement Moore’s poem, L. Frank Baum’s children’s books, the Rankin-Bass animated specials, or the various movies which play with the Santa story. Christians have been making up stories about Nicholas forever.
That’s why it gets a little frustrating when people ask about the facts behind St. Nicholas: We’re not sure we do have facts behind St. Nicholas. All we do know with any certainty is he was the bishop of Myra. The other stories: We honestly have no idea what parts of them are true, and what parts are exaggerations—or full-on fabrications. It could be all fiction.
But I’ll share what we’ve got, and you can take it from there.
Round the year 270, Nikólaos was born in Patara, in the Roman province of Lykia. That’s just outside present-day Gelemis, Turkey. No, he wasn’t Turkish; the Turks didn’t move in till the Middle Ages. He was Anatolean Greek. Hence the Greek name, which means “people’s victory,” same as Nicodemus.
Nicholas’s parents were Christian. When they died, he was raised by his uncle, the town bishop, who had the same name as he, Nikólaos. Seems his uncle groomed him to go into the family business: Nicholas was trained to be a reader, the person who reads the bible during worship services. Later he became a presbyter, an elder—or, as they were considered in the Orthodox tradition, a priest.
Tradition has it that Nicholas’s parents were wealthy, and he was very generous with his inheritance, regularly giving it to the needy. Probably the most popular St. Nicholas story tells of a man who couldn’t afford to marry off his daughters. Apparently they needed a large dowry in order to attract decent husbands. (Though you gotta wonder just how decent such husbands would be… but I digress.) Mysteriously, three bags of gold appeared just in time to pay for each daughter’s dowry. Of course their anonymous benefactor was Nicholas.
Depending on who’s telling the story, these weren’t bags of gold, but gold balls—and this is where the three-ball symbol on pawnshops supposedly comes from. Or the gold appeared in the daughter’s stockings as they dried over the fireplace (even though stockings weren’t invented yet) and this is where the custom of gifts in Christmas stockings supposedly comes from. Or Nicholas threw the gold down the chimney, and this is where that story comes from.
Of course, people are gonna try to connect Nicholas myths with Santa myths, so as to explain how on earth these two guys are the same person. So there’s the strong likelihood none of these stories are true. Nicholas had a reputation as a gift-giver. The rest is probably rubbish.
The adventures of Nicholas.
As a young man Nikólaos went on pilgrimage to Egypt and Israel. Which is possible; those places are relatively close to Turkey, and he’s supposed to have had the money. According to the myths, on the boat ride back, his prayers calmed a storm. Plus he fought pirates. (Seriously, some of the stories get downright weird.)
Shortly after his pilgrimage, Nicholas was elected bishop of Myra, Lykia (present-day Demre, Turkey). “Elected” makes it sound like he was voted into the job, but that’s not what election meant back then: He was chosen by a consensus of the other bishops and priests in his district. Myra was the
This may sound like an honor, but you gotta remember this was still during Roman persecution. Instead of a pledge of allegiance to the flag of the Roman Empire, Rome made their subjects worship the emperor’s guardian genius, a minor god or nature spirit. Or, as the Romans called them, daemoni—yeah, you know what that means. Of course, Christians can’t worship anyone but the L
Such was the case till Flavius Constantinus was elected one of the emperors in 306. (At this point in Roman history, several emperors held office simultaneously.) The first Christian to become emperor, Constantine’s influence was able to stop the persecution. Emperor Galerius passed an edict of toleration in 311, freeing the Christians. Emperors Constantine and Licinius passed the Edict of Milan in 313, giving Christians back any property that’d been confiscated. This left Nicholas free to minister to the Myrans.
The stories tell of how Nicholas rescued the Myrans from famine by miraculously multiplying wheat. And rescued people who were falsely accused. And gave secret gifts to people. And healed the sick. And raised the dead.
As a result, Roman Catholics made him the patron saint of pretty much everything he’s said to have interacted with: Children, students, merchants, sailors, fishermen, harbors, archers, and even thieves. Some Christians pray to him, on the grounds that if he can hear ’em from paradise, he might put in a good word for them with Jesus. If he did a miracle with such things once, maybe he’d be the go-to saint for similar miracles today.
When Constantine called the Council of Nicea in 325, supposedly Nicholas was one of the bishops in attendance. Unlikely. He wasn’t on the roll sheet, and signed none of the documents which came out of the council. But of course Christians wish he was there… so now there are stories about him being there. One is that, during the proceedings, he lost his cool and slapped Arius of Alexandria for heresy. Consequently he was fired as bishop and thrown into prison, but later Jesus and Mary appeared to him and gave him his job and freedom back. Of course, this story is baloney: Remember, Nicholas wasn’t appointed by an archbishop, but elected by his district. The most the Council could’ve done was send him home.
Even so, it’s said Nicholas made sure Arius’s teachings never spread to Myra. (They’re called
There’s also a story of three innocent men who were arrested on false charges, and Constantine sentenced ’em to death. But Nicholas appeared in a dream to both Constantine, and the local prefect Ablavius. He warned ’em to free the men, lest God smite these rulers. Comparing notes with Ablivius, and finding the men had prayed for Nicholas’s help, Constantine freed them. In the Middle Ages, this was the most famous miracle attributed to him. That is, till the Santa Claus stories spread, and the one with the bags of gold outpaced it.
We don’t have a thing Nicholas wrote. We just have legends. And we know he died in 343, and was buried in Myra. In his honor, a basilica in Constantinople was named for him. Over time he became world-famous.
Nicholas was known as a saint before the Great Schism split Christianity into the Orthodox and Catholic churches. So he’s known among all Christians. Lots of Orthodox and Catholic churches are named for him.
The Basilica di San Nicola. Wikimedia
One in particular is the church he’s now entombed in: The Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. What’s Nicholas doing in Italy? Simple: The Italians stole his body.
See, in the early 11th century the Saracens conquered Lykia. Several of the independent Italian city-states (who, as good patriotic Catholics, hated the idea of either Muslims or Orthodox Christians in charge of St. Nicholas) decided to raid Myra and capture Nicholas’s corpse. Soldiers from Bari beat the others to them. They swiped the remains, took ’em home, and built a church to enshrine them. Pilgrims still visit the Basilica di San Nicola to see “the manna of St. Nicholas”: Supposedly his body produces sweet-smelling ointment. And that’s why he’s sometimes known as St. Nicholas of Bari.
Remembered for his generosity, local folk festivals cropped up around Nicholas’s feast day. In some parts of Europe it, not Christmas, is the main day for gift-giving in December. Although that’s changing.
As you know, over the centuries the Nicholas stories got more and more convoluted. Supposedly Nicholas physically appears on his feast day (or on St. Nicholas’s Eve) to give gifts. In the Netherlands, where he became known as Sinterklaas, he arrives by steamboat, and leaves presents in children’s shoes. The Dutch brought their customs to the United States, where—blended together with English legends of Father Christmas—we wound up with our present-day Santa Claus.
Because Americans export our culture the world over, our Santa Claus was exported back to Europe, where he was blended together with all the Father Christmas and St. Nicholas celebrations. In the Netherlands, some folks celebrate both St. Nicholas’s Day—then Christmas with Santa. Others see the Santa stuff as just gross commercialization. You know, like we Christians in the United States do.
The man and the myths.
Thanks to all the myths, there’s not much we can take away from Nicholas… except these things.
First, Nicholas was a martyr. That’s kinda central to our understanding of him: Nicholas was willing to undergo persecution for Jesus. Real persecution, like prison and torture. Not the “Hey, you said ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’!” crap which some Christians try to exaggerate into tales of oppression. Nicholas took a real beating for Jesus. Could’ve avoided it with some token civic idolatry, and yes Jesus would’ve totally forgiven him. Plenty of Christians back then dodged persecution that way. Nicholas didn’t.
After people suffer persecution, it either traumatizes them, and makes them hard, paranoid, legalistic, bitter, or vengeful. Or it makes ’em appreciate God’s grace all the more, and they become generous and forgiving. After all, generosity and forgiveness don’t just happen on their own: They’re fruits of the Spirit. They happen because the Spirit makes people recognize it’s the only way to be healed from the effects of trauma and persecution. Jesus forgave the Romans who crucified him. Nicholas seems to have done the same with the Romans who put him through tribulation.
How do we know this? Because even though the Nicholas stories are exaggerated, they’re about his generosity. They’re stories of his love. They’re marks of the Spirit’s fruit. Nicholas couldn’t have come out of persecution this way unless he knew and loved Jesus. So was he a true Christian? Of course he was.
Whether you believe the other stories about Nicholas, you have to conclude at their core was a Christian who loved Jesus and ministered to his people. He probably merits a feast day out of it. And he deserves to be remembered for who he was, rather than as a commercialized caricature.