This coming Wednesday, December 6, is the feast of Saint Nicholas — a real man who lived long ago. He was born during the third century in Patara, a Greek village at the time in what is now the country of Turkey.
Nicholas was the only child of wealthy Christian parents who both died due to an epidemic when Nicholas was very young. He was raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, who eventually ordained Nicholas as a presbyter (priest).
Nicholas used his inheritance from his parents to help those in need. One of the most well-known stories of his generosity is of how he helped a poor father who didn't have money for his three daughters' dowries. Some accounts say the father planned to sell his daughters off as either slaves or prostitutes since he couldn't afford to support them. Upon learning of the father's plans, Nicholas secretly threw a bag of gold through an open window in the man's house to cover the oldest daughter's dowry. He did this on two other occasions for each of the other daughters as well. According to the legend, the bags of gold landed in either shoes or in stockings that were hanging to dry. This has led to the tradition of putting shoes out the night before the feast of St. Nicholas so they can be filled with bags of chocolate coins and other treats. It's also believed to be the origins of hanging Christmas stockings. In some depictions of the story, the bags of gold appear to be golden balls, which has led to the tradition of placing an orange in the toe of the stocking as a symbol of the gold.
In addition to his generosity, Nicholas was well known for his great faith. While Nicholas was still a young man, the clergy gathered in Myra to select a new bishop for the city. Nicholas was indicated by God as the one to be chosen. This was in the early fourth century during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians mercilessly. Nicholas was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. After his eventual release, Nicholas fought the Arian heresy. There are accounts of him being present a the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. where he slapped Arias for his heretical teachings. According to the stories, Nicholas was punished for his misconduct by being imprisoned and stripped of his title as bishop, but he was freed and reinstated after Jesus and Mary appeared to him in prison.
There are many more stories of St. Nicholas that tell of his passionate faith and his care for others. For example, he is credited with the destruction of pagan temples. Sailors call upon his intercession as it is believed that his prayers once calmed the sea while he was a passenger on a ship during a storm. He is also believed to have helped save his people from famine and freed innocent men from being put to death.
Nicholas died in 343 and was buried at his cathedral in Myra. In 1087, St. Nicholas' relics were moved to Bari, Italy. To this day, many pilgrims visit the enshrined relics at the Basilica di San Nicola.
So, how did the generous, faithful bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? The answer is quite involved. After his death, many miracles were attributed to his intercession and his popularity grew and spread throughout the world. It is believed that French nuns in the twelfth century began the tradition of placing gifts in the shoes of children on the eve of St. Nicholas day, thus creating the idea of St. Nicholas as an enchanted night-time gift-giver.
By the 1500s, St. Nicholas customs and celebrations had become so popular, that even with the Protestant Reformation's attempt to abolish anything associated with saints and their feast days, many people continued their local St. Nicholas traditions. In the Netherlands, vendors at "Sinterklass" fairs sold toys and large cookies in the shape of the bishop. Whether or not Dutch colonists brought "Sinterklass" with them to America, however, is up for debate, as they would have been Dutch Reformed Protestants. Regardless, the Dutch pronunciation of "Sinterklass" is credited as the source of the Anglicized "Santa Claus."
The pieces of the puzzle begin to come together in New York, formerly New Amsterdam. In 1773, patriots in New York formed the Sons of St. Nicholas to counter the British St. George Societies. Then in 1804, John Pintard founded the New-York Historical Society and promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both the society and of New York City. Washington Irving joined the society in January of 1809. His satirical work of fiction, Knickerbocker's History of New York, was published on the feast of St. Nicholas that year and is credited as the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends, including the description of him as a jolly, Dutch, elfin type man who came down chimneys to bring gifts to children. The following year, at the request of John Pintard, artist Alexander Anderson created the first American image of St. Nicholas for the society's anniversary dinner. It depicted St. Nicholas as a giftgiver with treat-filled stockings hanging on a fireplace. We begin to see more elements of today's Santa Claus in 1821 with the publication of the book, The Children's Friend. In it, "Sante Claus" arrives on Christmas Eve, rather than on December 6. He comes from the North in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Just two years later, comes the most well-known depiction of St. Nicholas as a "right jolly old elf," in the poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, commonly known today as The Night Before Christmas.
In the years to follow, artists' renderings of Santa continued to move away from the bishop St. Nicholas, though they still varied greatly in their portrayals. It wasn't until the 1920s that the image of a large, white-haired, bearded man in a red, fur-trimmed suit became the standard.
What does all this mean for us Catholics today? There's no definitive answer. Celebrations of St. Nicholas day are not obligatory and, likewise, secular traditions involving Santa Claus are not prohibited. Some may choose to do one or the other, or some combination of both, or even none at all. As Catholics, the only thing we are required to do for Christmas is attend Mass (see the back page for the Christmas Mass schedule and important information regarding the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year).
However you and your family celebrate, may the example of St. Nicholas inspire us all to live lives of great faith with love of God and neighbor, not only during Advent and the Christmas season, but throughout the year.BACK TO LIST