Awesome People in History: Saint Nicholas of Myra

St Nicholas icon from Wikimedia Commons

Christmas is approaching, and we all know that means the elves at the North Pole are working overtime to get all the presents on the lists of the nice children of the world ready. In just a few days, Santa Claus is going to fly across the sky in his magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, delivering the gifts all around the world. One has to wonder, how exactly did Santa end up with just such an unusual job?

Well, as many of you are already aware, Santa Claus is actually a nickname. His real name, of course, is Saint Nicholas; the nickname derives from the Dutch name for him, Sinterklaas.

Interestingly, he seems to treat the Netherlands differently than in other countries, arriving on December 5 in a steamboat that sailed from Spain and delivering presents on horseback, stuffing them into children’s shoes with the help of dark-skinned helpers called Zwarte Pieten (“Black Peters”). While most naughty children will get coal from St. Nick, the naughty children of the Netherlands will be stuffed in a sack and brought back to Spain!

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet image by Tenorio81

I wonder if the Zwarte Piets are the ones who dig the coal?

As you can see from the picture above, the outfit he wears in the Netherlands is also different than the red fur suit with white lining and black boots we are used to seeing him wear. Instead, when visiting the Netherlands, he wears his bishop’s outfit. After all, he is the bishop of Myra.

See, Saint Nicholas was born during the third century AD in Patara, a city that today lies in Turkey, though at the time it was a predominantly Greek city within the Roman Empire. His parents were Christians who happened to be quite wealthy, a fact that softened the blow for him when they died of a plague when he was a boy. After they passed away, Saint Nicholas promised to use the fortune he inherited to help the poor.

One of the earliest stories we have of him fulfilling his promise comes from a 9th-century biography written about him. His neighbor, who had fallen on hard times and was struggling financially, had three daughters that he could no longer afford to support. This neighbor was about to sell these daughters into sexual slavery in a brothel, spurring the young Nicholas to act. One night, he threw a bag through the man’s window, filled with enough gold to serve as a dowry to have the oldest daughter find a husband. Once she had married, the saint threw another bag of gold through the window for the second daughter, and he repeated his generous deed for the third daughter as well. This third time, the father actually caught Nicholas in the act, and threw himself at the saint’s feet to thank him profusely. Nicholas asked the man to keep this all a secret, so as to keep him from feeling ashamed of depending on the saint’s charity.

Later, Saint Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by sea. During his voyage, a terrible storm threatened to sink the ship, but Nicholas stayed calm and prayed as the waves rocked the boat. Soon, the storm cleared, and he made it safely back to his hometown.

It was after this that Saint Nicholas was chosen as bishop of Myra. In the early years of his service in the church, Christianity was banned by the Roman authorities and Christians suffered religious persecution. Nicholas himself endured imprisonment and torture for his faith.

However, when Constantine became Emperor of Rome, he not only legalized Christianity, he took the first steps toward making it the official faith of the empire. One of these steps was to summon the Council of Nicaea, a grand council of all the bishops across Christendom to meet and decide important matters of Christian doctrine and practice.

Council of Nicaea image from Wikimedia Commons

The biggest debate at this council concerned the very nature of God. One camp, the Trinitarians, argued that there is only one God, but He exists in three equal, eternal forms: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This belief was challenged by the priest Arius, whose followers, the Arians, argued that the Son (Jesus Christ) was a separate creation of God the Father. To Trinitarians, this claim was nothing short of heresy and an insult to God.

Even so, the council allowed Arius to present his case and his argument. As Arius spoke, Nicholas grew more and more agitated by the man’s speech. At last, Nicholas got up and straight-up slapped Arius right across the face!

This wasn’t the only time Saint Nicholas got angry and lost his cool. When he heard that three innocent men were condemned to death by a Roman governor who had been bribed to convict them, the saint showed up at the execution, snatched the executioner’s sword and knocked it to the ground, using it to free the wrongly-convicted trio. He then chewed out the Roman officials for accepting such a bribe, and shamed them into letting the men go.

One of the most famous stories about the saint, though, is widely believed to be false by modern historians. The story goes that when three lost children were kidnapped and murdered by an evil innkeeper, St. Nicholas appeared and brought them back from the dead, returning them safely to their parents. The letter I mailed to the North Pole asking if this story has any truth to it has received no reply as of this writing.

Regardless, the question remains, how did Saint Nicholas, ancient bishop and church leader, become the Santa Claus figure we know and love today?

This is where we have to talk about Father Christmas. Tracing his origins to pagan winter traditions from ancient Britain and Scandinavia, Father Christmas appeared in medieval England as a symbol of the joy and festivities that Christmas brings. Wearing a long, green fur robe and a crown of holly, Father Christmas was frequently referenced in seasonal poems, plays, and writings. Today, you might recognize him as the Ghost of Christmas Present who haunted Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Ghost of Christmas Present image by John Leech

Pictured: Recreation by the historian Charles Dickens of the events in question.

After English and Dutch colonists arrived in North America, Santa Claus started to take on his modern form in the melting pot that is the United States. He took on the name and gift-giving-to-children habit of Sinterklaas and the fur robes, jolly demeanor, and deep, belly laugh of Father Christmas. The first written account of Saint Nicholas riding his famous reindeer sleigh across the sky and climbing down a chimney to deliver presents comes from the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. You may remember this poem from its opening lines:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The color of Santa’s fur outfit initially varied between these early accounts, but by the early 20th century he appears to have settled on red as his preferred color scheme. While most of his reindeer team has been consistent since that first poem, Rudolph appears to have been brought on as the team leader in 1939, ostensibly because of his bright red nose that was useful for navigation. It isn’t known when Santa got married, but the first references to Mrs. Claus were recorded in 1851, so we can presume it was around that time.

Today, Saint Nicholas of Myra is celebrated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as a patron saint of children, of sailors, and the falsely accused. His feast day is held on December 6, which is probably why he is so closely associated with Christmas, a holiday held just 19 days later. As Santa Claus, he brings joy to millions of children around the world every Christmas Eve, and I’m sure he is quite proud of this generous legacy.

Santa Claus image by Randy Landicho

It’s my pleasure! Ho ho ho!