From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus
It is an historical fact that Saint Nicholas is a real person. He was bishop of Myra, on the southern coast of what is today Turkey, in the early 300’s A.D. Acts 27:5 records St. Paul stopped at Myra during his journey to Rome. St. Nicholas was imprisoned with other church leaders during a Roman persecution. After the persecution ended, he attended the Council of Nicea, where Nicene Creed was adopted. We know St. Nicholas was an especially kind, caring, and holy bishop because of the impact of his life on the church. After his death, many churches, bishops and children were named after him. Many stories are told of his generosity, protection and miraculous intercession. Miracles were also associated with visits to his tomb and bones buried at his cathedral in Myra. The date of St. Nicholas’ death, December 6, was made a Feast Day.
One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. Without dowries, this poor man’s daughters were unable to find husbands and would have likely been sold into slavery. On three separate occasions, a bag of gold mysteriously appeared in their home providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas on the eve of his Feast Day. Sometimes the story is told with golden balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three golden balls – or three oranges – are a symbol for St. Nicholas.
In the year 1087, St. Nicholas’s relics were relocated from Myra to Bari, a seaport in southern Italy. Western European interest and traditions about St. Nicholas grew and his relics attracted many pilgrims. In the 1500’s the Dutch developed a special tradition of St. Nicholas who they called Sinter Klaas. Every year Sinter Klaas would come to Holland on a ship from Spain, dressed as a bishop, near the December 6 Feast Day, and stay for a few weeks. He would examine children’s behavior and give gifts to all who had been good. Children would leave their wooden shoes out at night, and gifts would appear in them.
American author Washington Irving wrote how the Dutch brought their association with Sinter Klaas to New Amsterdam, which became New York. St. Nicholas – Sinter Klaas – Santa Claus. The historical progression is clear.
In Troy, New York in 1823, a poem was published that evoked a whimsical, magical view of St. Nicholas and laid the foundation for the character of Santa Claus. It begins, “Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the house…” You know the next line and all that follow, because this has become the best-known poem in the English language. St. Nicholas was portrayed as a jolly old elf with rosy cheeks, driving a sleigh with named reindeer intent on filling stockings hung along fireplaces by deserving children. This poem transported St. Nick across the month of December from the 6th to Christmas Eve.
From there it was up to commercial artists to complete the picture. Thomas Nast drew Santa every Christmas for Harper’s Bazaar magazine in the late 1800’s. His drawings revealed Santa’s North Pole headquarters, elves as toymaker assistants, children’s letters to Santa, and treats left for Santa by the mantel. By the early 1900’s, stores were generally including images and men dressed as Santa Claus in Christmas advertising and in-store promotions. Haddon Sundblom illustrated Santa for Coca-Cola starting in the 1930’s. He showed Santa as we see him today, a plus-size, white-bearded man dressed in red and white (coincidentally Coca-Cola’s packaging colors).
Including the real St. Nicholas, a beloved bishop of the ancient church, in our Christmas celebrations points us more toward the reason for it all – Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Visit stnicholascenter.org to learn more about St. Nicholas, both history and legend.
On December 4th, join the Family Ministry in celebration of The Real Santa! Enjoy a visit from St. Nicolas at 9:15 am including festivities and refreshments!
This article was written by David McKinley, Children’s Ministry Catechist for grades 3-5.
Photo: Norman Rockwell’s “Santa and Expense Book” appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post published December 4, 1920.