The Saint Who Became Santa Claus
Don't let anyone tell you there's no such thing as Santa Claus. For St. Nicholas is one of the oldest official saints of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, he is a bit of a paradox in the calendar of saints. He was a bishop and a worker of miracles, but, in the 20th century particularly, his cult has been hijacked by pagan Western commercialism.
This goes against the more usual pattern where several saints can be identified with pre-Christian pagan deities—St. Brigid, for example—and many saints' feast days coincide with older pagan celebrations.
But whatever the confusion surrounding him today, the real Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was a fantastic figure and his feast day on Dec. 6 is well worth celebrating.
He had nothing to do with the North Pole; in fact, he lived in what is now Southern Turkey on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. In the early fourth century he was bishop of Myra, a town known today as Demre.
Properly, he should be depicted wearing bishop's vestments, but today he wears red, mainly because red is the corporate color of the Coca-Cola Co. which was the first to use the figure as part of a pre-Christmas mass marketing campaign. This image is now used to sell everything from candy to Cadillacs.
However, there is no doubt that the Church had good reason for encouraging the cult of St. Nicholas, for he was a strong defender of the Church against the Arian heresy, which denied Christ's divinity.
Whatever the myths about St. Nicholas, we know for a fact that he attended the Council of Nicea in 325. That council condemned Arianism and instituted the original Nicene Creed which was one font for a later creed which we still say at Mass. It affirms that we believe that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” Such was St. Nicholas'infuriation with Arius, proponent of the Arian heresy, that it is said that he struck the apostate so severely that “the bones in his body rattled.”
Following St. Nicholas' death in 342, he became the subject of a popular devotion and many tales were told of his miracles. Quickly, these miracles led to him becoming the patron saint of children and of sailors.
His link with children stems from a legend that during a famine, a butcher was selling the flesh of children to a starving population. Nicholas was horrified to find their dismembered limbs stored in a salt barrel, but by passing his crosier over the butchered bodies, the children's limbs were rejoined and they were restored to life.
Tales of famine also gave rise to St. Nicholas' claim as patron saint of sailors. After urging a relief fleet to take grain to a distant starving population during a storm, the fleet was able to survive the dreadful weather thanks to the bishop's blessing. Another time,
St. Nicholas successfully convinced a group of sea merchants to empty their holds of all food to help the starving. Yet once the merchants reached their original destination on the far side of the Mediterranean, they found that their once empty holds were completely refilled.
St. Nicholas probably first became associated with Christmas because his feast date, like that of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, is close to the beginning of the festive season. But there is also a story which links him to the tradition of present giving.
It is said that in Myra there was a family of three daughters who were so poor that between them they did not have enough money for one dowry, so that none of them could marry. The eldest volunteered to sell herself into slavery and prostitution to earn a dowry for the other two. But St. Nicholas heard of this and anonymously sent three gifts of money to the family over three years allowing the three daughters to marry one after another. Fancifully, it is said, the first time he did so the money was thrown in a purse down the daughter's chimney—creating that particular myth about Santa Claus and chimneys. Another time, after being thrown over a garden wall, the purse became tangled with clothes on a washing line, hence the connection with Christmas stockings.
Though mostly associated with children and sailors, devotion to St. Nicholas spread among the general population along the shores of the Mediterranean. In the sixth century, the Emperor Justinian built a church in his honor in Constantinople, the second greatest city in the Roman empire. His popularity in Constantinople, now named Istanbul, would have helped spread his fame along the Black Sea coast and deep into Eastern Europe.
Eventually, St. Nicholas became patron saint of Holy Russia. Thanks to the czars' love of St. Nicholas, there were eventually more churches dedicated to the saint than any other, except Our Lady.
St. Nicholas' importance in the Middle Ages is shown by the fact that when Islam rose in the East, efforts were made to rescue his relics from desecration by militant Muslims.
In 1087 his bones were taken from Myra to Bari in Italy under controversial circumstances. Italians still claim the bones were transferred by devout merchants, but in Turkey, it is said the bones were taken by pirates.
In Demre, the Basilica of St. Nicholas is now a ruin, and there is confusion over which of the two surviving tombs there originally belonged to St. Nicholas. The “official” tomb bears a carving of an embracing Byzantine couple—a most unsuitable inscription for the tomb of a bishop. Another tomb, which is less ornately decorated, is said by others to be the true tomb; they claim that oils left overnight in that sarcophagus have miraculous qualities. That this confusion exists is surprising, for St. Nicholas' tomb was the focus of pilgrimages to the site for many years. Oil poured into the tomb and recovered later was said to have had miraculous qualities.
The cult of St. Nicholas came to the United States via Middle and Eastern European emigrants especially—in Britain, for example, there was no strong devotion to him until the Victorian period, which also gave us many of the other trappings of modern day Christmas — cards, Christmas trees, and even Christmas pudding.
While there are no longer any Christians living in Demre, St. Nicholas' home town, today, local Muslim businessmen have founded a charitable foundation which each year awards a peace prize to an international figure. In its first year, the prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama who, on receiving it, noted that an award named for a Christian saint had been awarded to a Buddhist by a group of Muslims. A fitting legacy for a fantastic saint.
Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.
- November 15-21, 1998