I believe, and not just because I have a 7-year-old daughter. I have always believed, even when I was a 40-year-old man who thought I would never have children I believed. Why do I believe? To explain, I need to tell a brief history of Santa Claus, and of course, any history of Santa Claus begins with a brief history of St. Nicholas. My rule on my website is no politics or religion. However, as Saint Nicholas was a Christian Bishop it is part of who he was, and as such, it is part of his story. This article is a brief history of Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus and makes no judgments for or against Christianity in keeping with my rule.
Nicholas was born in present day Turkey to wealthy Greek parents. Orphaned while a small boy he was raised by his uncle Nicholas. Uncle Nicholas was the bishop of Patara. As he grew older, our Nicholas became a priest under his uncle’s tutelage. On his uncle’s death, Father Nicholas became Bishop Nicholas. Religious icons are almost as old as Christianity, and play a part in some of the legends of Saint Nicholas. In the early days of Christianity the majority of people could not read or write, (priests were the exception to this). Icons are religious images created according to strict rules. Each saint’s icon has specific items in the image that identify that particular saint. In the case of Saint Nicholas, he holds a book in his left hand and in his right hand, he holds three purses, or three gold coins, or three balls of gold.
The book is a gospel. Saint Nicholas is considered a defender of the faith. At the Council of Nicaea, the Roman Emperor called all the leaders of Christianity together in an attempt to “standardize” the religion. There were two main groups within Christianity. The first and smaller group (called Gnostics) believed Jesus was a prophet who was then killed, executed, and buried. They also believed that the way to heaven was through a secret knowledge (Gnosticism). By learning this secret knowledge, people earned their way into heaven. They were the authors of the Gnostic gospels, often referred to as the “forbidden books of the bible”. The second group (which Nicholas was a member of) believed that Jesus was the son of God and rose from the dead, they also believed that no one could earn their way into heaven. This second group believed that people went to heaven only through the grace of God, because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
By now you are asking “Ok, but what does all of this have to do with Saint Nicholas?” When the leader of the Gnostics stood before the Emperor making the case for his side at the Council of Nicaea, Bishop Nicholas calmly walked to the front of the gathering and slapped the Gnostic leader across the mouth, while he was addressing the Emperor. The other Gnostics demanded that Bishop Nicholas immediately be put to death for striking a person in the presence of the Emperor (this was a Roman law). Bishop Nicholas was well liked by all who knew him and he was generous to the poor. Also, Emperor Constantine is believed to have favored Nicholas’ side over the Gnostics. The Emperor decided that Bishop Nicholas would be stripped of all his Bishop’s attire and symbols of his rank, and placed in a cell for the night while the Emperor decided his fate.
In the morning, when the guards went to get Bishop Nicholas, his cell door was opened, all of his Bishop’s vestments were returned, and he was kneeling in prayer. Nicholas’ supporters claimed that Jesus had freed him and the Virgin Mary had returned all of his vestments to him. Emperor Constantine declared that was enough for him he would not go against Jesus and Mary. He restored Nicholas as a bishop. After this, all traces of Gnosticism were removed from the accepted cannon and Gnosticism was outlawed. It is for this reason that icons of Nicholas show him with a book (a gospel) in his right hand.
The three pieces of gold in his other hand are a testament to his generosity to the poor. There was a man who had three daughters, but no dowry. At this time, a woman without a dowry could not marry and would most likely become a prostitute because this would be the only way she would be able to support herself. Bishop Nicholas on hearing of this man and his three daughters provided the dowry for each of the daughters. When each daughter became of age, he secretly made his way to the house at night. He then left a bag of gold coins for the young woman’s dowry. When it was the youngest daughter’s turn, her father decided to hide and see who the anonymous benefactor was. Bishop Nicholas wanted to keep his identity secret, and so tossed the bag of coins down the chimney where they fell in a pair of stockings the daughter had hung over the fireplace to dry.
A myth surrounding Saint Nicholas has him bringing three boys back to life after a butcher had killed them. This story most probably comes from illiterate people mistaking the three gold balls in his hand (in the icon) for three heads. The three gold balls have also been mistaken for three oranges. This is why in Holland it is believed that Sinterklaas comes from Spain. In the time before North America was explored, oranges were imported from Spain to Holland.
Bishop Nicholas spent the rest of his life in service to the church and spent the fortune he inherited from his parents helping the poor, particularly children. During his life, children were considered of no value, and a parent or guardian could do with children as he liked (woman ranked above only children at this time). Bishop Nicholas died on 6 December 343. Traditionally a saint’s feast day is the anniversary of his/her death (the day they enter heaven). In celebration of the feast day of Saint Nicholas gifts are given to children to honor Saint Nicholas. Bishop Nicholas’ reputation as a giver of gifts is the source for our Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
Father Christmas goes back more than 500 years in England, over time he merged with Saint Nicholas into the figure we know today as Santa Claus. The first use of the name Santa Claus goes back to the American colonies in 1773. Santa Claus is also mentioned in Washington Irving’s 1809 History of New York. Santa Claus is an Americanization of the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas.
Santa Claus as we know him today has evolved over the last 200 year. In 1821, in the poem Santeclaus he was described as an old man on a reindeer sleigh. Next came the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (known today as Twas the Night Before Christmas or The Night Before Christmas). This poem was published anonymously on 23 December 1823. Today it is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, though some claim it was written by Henry Livingston Jr. (books and articles have been written on which of these men actually wrote the poem).
A Visit from Saint Nicholas gave us much of what we know today about Santa Claus, but that is for next week.