A Brief History
On December 6, 343, the man we have come to know as Santa Claus died at the age of 73 in Myra, part of the Roman Empire in what is now South Western Turkey.
Before you break the bad news to young children, you should know that St. Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker (now that is a name!) is the real life inspiration for Santa Claus. (Note: Nicholas is an Anglicized version of Nikolaos.) Not only is Nicholas revered as a saint by the Catholic Church, he is also given sainthood by the Orthodox Church, Anglican Church, and Lutheran Church, while some other sects of Protestant denominations also recognize him as a saint.
Nicholas was born in the year 270 in the South West Turkish town (in modern Turkey, but of Greek heritage) of Patara in what was then part of the Roman Empire. Inclined toward a religious life, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, lived with monks there, and became the Bishop of Myra upon his return around 317.
Nicholas’s main theological influence was when he attended the First council of Niaea in 325 where he defended the Orthodox Christian view of Christ as divine and co-equal with God the Father against the Arians (followers of Arius) that proposed Christ as created by God and subordinate to God’s divinity.
Some of the miracles attributed to St. Nicholas include resurrecting 3 children that had been butchered and put into a barrel to cure in order to be sold as ham during a famine. (Wow, no wonder why people were impressed!) Another version of this miracle has 3 clerks instead of children murdered and made into meat pies before resurrection. Another miracle performed by Nicholas, also during a famine, was to talk sailors into unloading part of their cargo of wheat to feed hungry people, with the promise that the sailors would not actually lose any of their cargo. When the cargo was weighed even after the unloading of food for the masses, the surprised sailors found the cargo to weigh the original amount with no deduction for what had been offloaded. Nicholas also resurrected a sailor killed during a storm. Believe it or not, these and other miraculous miracles are not the most famous of Nicholas’ blessed deeds, but the story of Nicholas throwing 3 bags of gold through a window in a house (at night while everyone slept) in order to provide money for a dowry for the 3 daughters that would have otherwise been stuck living as prostitutes (since they could not marry without a dowry) is considered his signature miracle. Other versions have Nicholas chucking bags of gold through the window on 3 consecutive nights, and another version has him keeping it up for 3 years! We can see how such generosity can be conflated with giving gifts to every (good) boy and girl every Christmas! That, and the alternate story line where the gold is placed in the stockings of the girls who have hung them up to dry after being laundered. (In case you wondered where the hanging of stockings tradition comes from…)
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of a host of cities and towns, and also of children, sailors and fishermen, coopers, broadcasters (?), merchants, brewers, repentant thieves, pharmacists (I did not know they needed one…), the falsely accused and pawnbrokers (the 3 gold balls symbolizing pawn shops is said to stem from the 3 bags of gold given to the girls) among others.
In 2005, a forensic reconstruction of what Nicholas looked like based on photographs and measurements of his bones revealed that he was only 5 feet tall and had a broken nose. The oldest depictions of him show him to be dark skinned.
Knowing now all the incredible acts attributed to St. Nicholas, the Santa Claus delivery of presents each Christmas does not seem all that difficult to accept! Question for students (and subscribers): With Christmas fast approaching, please share with out other readers what you would most like to receive for Christmas in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Carus, Louise. The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope from around the World. Quest Books, 2002.
Eich, Foster. The True Story of St. Nicholas. Mascot Books, 2014.
Ellison, Chris and Julie Stiegemeyer. Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend. Concordia Publishing, 2007.
The featured image in this article, a medieval Book of Hours probably written for the De Grey family of Ruthin c.1390, is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. This image is available from the National Library of Wales. You can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue.