Devout Christians familiar with the life of St. Nicholas can easily find the connection between a pious church leader and the personification of Christmas. Both are known for giving gifts, especially to those in need. Yet, the truth is, though these names appear to be synonymous with one another, they’re not. Throughout time, each moniker has developed its own distinct attribute.
St. Nicholas, the Man
The story of St. Nicholas began in the late 3rd century, approximately 270 AD, in the small village of Patara, Lycia; modern-day Turkey. The Mediterranean saint came from a wealthy family, though he became an orphan by the time he was young when his parents died in an epidemic. From that point on, Nicholas dedicated his life to helping the sick. It is believed that he became Bishop of Myra while still a young man.
St. Nicholas was unwavering in his religious ideals and was imprisoned for his beliefs during the Great Persecution of 303 A.D. It is well known that his release from prison came after the emperor Constantine ended the persecutions in 313 AD. Years later, he was one of the many bishops, along with Constantine, to congregate at the Council of Nicaea, where they sought to establish church doctrine.
Bishop Nicholas passed away on December 6, 343 AD due to natural causes and was buried in his cathedral. Yet, his spiritual work hadn’t stopped then. A liquid substance, which people believed to be manna, was found in his grave. The manna was said to have healing powers, and the legacy of St. Nicholas was solidified.
The Stories that Made Him
After his death, many stories spread regarding the saint’s generosity and the miracles he performed. There are tales of him calming stormy waters through prayer while traveling back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His show of faith in God earned him the title of the patron saint to sailors and voyagers.
Then, there are the stories of his dealings with the dead. In one tale, an innkeeper dismembers three students and then pickles their remains in the basement. One of the versions of the story says St. Nicholas had a mystical dream where he was told what happened to the innocent travelers. Upon awakening, he implored God to revive the bodies, and each one was miraculously restored to life. Other variations throughout Europe say the three students were actually three young boys kidnapped by a butcher.
Yet, the most well-known story associated with St. Nicholas has nothing to do with children. There was once a father so poor he did not have enough dowry for his three daughters. Without this, they would be considered unmarriageable by society. And so, the women were faced with entering a life of prostitution. St. Nicholas, once he was made aware of the situation, secretly gave the father three bags of gold. The details change depending on who tells the tale. However, some say that the bags were dropped down a chimney, and others claim that the bags thrown through the open window landed on shoes left near the fire.
The Legacy that Followed
Considering the value his physical body now possessed, it’s no surprise that his bones were highly sought after. Upon hearing of the manna secretion, thousands made the pilgrimage to Myra to witness the saintly skeleton.
By the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas had become the patron saint of prostitutes, sailors, voyagers, prisoners, and children. As a result, December 6th was celebrated with gift-giving and feasts. Children would leave shoes or special stockings out by their front door overnight in hopes that St. Nicholas would bring them toys. Many even considered the Saint’s day a lucky day to get married.
Around the 1200s, other towns had had enough of Myra receiving such lucrative attention and strategized to steal the relics. A group of Italian sailors was successful in their attempts, and a portion of St. Nicholas’ bones now lay in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy.
Because religious corruption in the church finally gave way to the Protestant Reformation during the 16th century, many traditions were forever altered. Festivities for saints began to decline, and more emphasis was placed on the purity of the Christmas season.
Until the 20th century, there had been some debate in the religious community as to whether the grave was indeed occupied by the remains of St. Nicholas. With advanced technology, scientists were able to confirm that the bones belonged to an elderly man of Greek descent. During repairs to the crypt in the 1950s, x-ray photos were taken of the relics. Along with advanced technology, Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist, was able to create a simulation of what St. Nicholas may have looked like. Unfortunately, her restoration wasn’t exact and details, including his olive skin tone, were at best guesses made by digital artists. Yet, it is highly possible that he suffered from a broken nose due to his years of imprisonment, as Wilkinson imagined.
The Intermingling of Man & Myth
Throughout Europe, however, pre-Christian folkloric traditions became intermingled with the image of St. Nicholas making it difficult to distinguish between him and myth. For example, early illustrations of St. Nicholas are eerily similar to those of Odin, the Norse god. Both men are shown to be slender, wearing hoods and have a long white beard. St. Nicholas didn’t gain his famed plump cheeks and rosy complexion until centuries later.
According to myth, Odin was the original gift-giver during the Yule season. Every year around the winter solstice, gods, goddesses, and spirits would roam freely in honor of the Wild Hunt. In anticipation of Odin’s return, children would leave straw in their shoes as a gift to his eight-legged horse. In turn, while they slept, Odin would reward their good behavior with treats. It is theorized that Odin’s two ravens, who would fly around the world gathering information, would tell him who had been naughty or nice.
Odin, being the god of war, was closely associated with the dead. Not all who died gained entrance to his court, though. Only the most valiant of warriors were allowed in his presence. There are numerous stories of Odin communicating with the spirits of the deceased as well as raising the dead from their slumber. A similar connection is seen when remembering St. Nicholas’ miraculous revival of the three victims at the inn.
One of the clearest connections, however, to the Norse god Odin was when Europeans morphed St. Nicholas into Father Christmas. A common moniker for Odin was All-father.
Father Christmas Emerges
The strife that characterized Europe in those days provoked the government to do away with certain traditions. Religious leaders were adamant about removing pagan influences from their season of worship. Yet, political pamphleteers were against that, and they tried to resurrect the holiday spirit of excess through the symbol of Father Christmas. Though, this character had nothing to do with bringing children gifts at night. He was solely concerned with feasting and being merry. This was a nod to the pre-Christian tradition of Saturnalia, which was once vehemently celebrated during the winter solstice.
A Saturnalia Return?
Saturnalia was a week-long festival in honor of the Roman god, Saturn; lord of agriculture, abundance, and morality. During the festivities, no one worked. People spent their time enjoying others company, exchanging gifts, drinking, singing in the streets, and feasting in excess. The familiar greeting for them was “Io Saturnalia!” or “Io, Io, Io!”
Slaves were allowed to partake in the celebrations, and their roles were reversed with their masters. Newly “freed” slaves would wear special hats called pilleums to differentiate them from others. However, it has been cited that the pilleum came to be worn by whoever wanted to be “freed” from societal constraints. These special hats were cone-shaped and at times had a fur trim.
In the development of this festival, a peculiar tradition started. Each home would choose a mock king, or saturnalicius princeps, to purposely create mischief. At the beginning of the week, a small object, usually a coin, would be cooked into one of the meals. The lucky person to find it was crowned King and allowed to be as ill-behaved as possible.
It is no wonder then why the Puritan government of the New World would be opposed to the traditional holiday shenanigans.
The Story of Santa Claus
Washington Irving is one of the few names attributed to spreading the European folklore in the New World. He made quite a few written references to St. Nicholas being the patron saint of New York, as well as, to the festivities Dutch families held in his honor. The reality is, if it hadn’t been for the multitude of Northern European families that settled in the colonies, American Christmas would look a lot different.
In 1821 an anonymous poem, entitled “The Children’s Friend,” was published. In it, a generous man leaving presents for all the good children is named Santa Claus, and he’s illustrated as flying over chimneys with a reindeer-drawn sleigh. The impact of this poem was quite significant. Not only did it help mold the imagery of modern-day Santa Claus, but it differentiated him from St. Nicholas. There was no mention of the character’s religious beliefs or associations. Santa Claus had just been reimagined and the New World loved it.
The following year, another anonymous poem about Santa Claus was published under the name, “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Today this story is better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” There is still debate regarding who the original author of this piece was. Some accredit Clement Clarke Moore, while others believe Major Henry Livingston wrote the story. Regardless of the actual writer, the imagery conveyed has carried on to this day. A jolly, old man travels with eight reindeers that magically carry his sleigh throughout the night, and leaves after wishing them a “Merry Christmas.”
The ninth, and certainly the most important, reindeer was added to the tale in the 1930s. Robert May was a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. He was tasked with writing a children’s book for the holiday shopping season. Drawing upon his own childhood experiences, May created a timid, red-nosed protagonist that ultimately saves Christmas. The book became so popular over the following years that it was translated into more than 20 languages and made into a movie.
Another name that must be mentioned when it comes to the rebranding of Santa Claus is Thomas Nast. Nast was a political cartoonist who gained notoriety while working at Harper’s Weekly. The cartoonist’s first renditions are a complete contrast to the images we know today. Originally, Santa Claus was small, almost elf-like, possibly drawing upon its connection to Odin. Nast would continue to play around with the illustration until 1881 when the jolly, plump man in an all-red suit carrying toys was solidified.
Marketing of Christmas
The industrial revolution was one that brought with it many pros and cons. The elimination of communal living weakened human connection and survival became a priority. On the upside, however, society was advancing. Technologies were being invented and implemented that would seemingly improve people’s quality of life.
And with a surplus of factory items being produced, gift-giving during the holiday season was surely impacted. It was no longer about giving sweet treats or prepared delicacies. By the early 1800s, newspapers had begun selling advertisement space and had whole sections dedicated to promoting Christmas shopping. Then, in 1841 a shop owner in Philadelphia had the genius idea of using a life-size Santa Clause to attract customers. Suffice to say, it worked. Shortly thereafter other shops adopted this model, and the American tradition of taking children to visit Santa at the local store was born.
Before the turn of the century, the Salvation Army used a similar tactic to attract donors. The charitable organization wanted to raise funds to provide free meals to families in need during the Christmas season. So, they had men out in the streets of New York dressed up as Santa Claus asking passersby for donations.
There are plenty of holiday rituals adopted from pre-Christianity and Scandanavian traditions that are still in use today, like hanging mistletoe and decorating Christmas trees. And, the debate over how to truly celebrate the gift-giving season still continues. Fortunately, modern society allows for both Saturnian merry-making and pious devotion.