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#87: The History of St Nicholas and why I STILL believe in Santa Claus

St. Nicholas, otherwise known as Nicholas of Bari or Nicholas of Myra, is one of the most popular of the minor saints commemorated by both Eastern and Western Churches. He is a patron saint of children and of sailors. And, as most of us know, he is associated with the Christian festival of Christmas.

Little is known of the historical life of Saint Nicholas, other than that he was probably bishop of Myra in the 4th Century. Traditionally, he was born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara, and travelled to Palestine and Egypt as a young person. Soon after his return to Lycia, he became bishop of Myra; and was imprisoned and most likely tortured by the Romans during the persecution of Christians under Roman Emperor Diocletian. He was released under the rule of Constantine the Great, the first of the great Christian emperors, and may have attended the first Council of Nicaea in 325 (which is an incredibly important point in history).

His legend was created thanks to his reputation for generosity and kindness; this is where stories of the miracles he performed for the poor began. He was reputed to have given gold marriage dowries to three girls who would have otherwise been forced into sex work due to their poverty; this one I easily believe, and even very much hope to be true. This is an example of real Christ-like behavior, ya know? And isn’t a miracle of the magical sense. He was however reputed to have restored to life three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a tub of brine for later consumption. This one… obviously less believable. But hey, I wasn't there. Maybe the reality was that he used his funding as a bishop of the church, and his influence in the community, to save three children who had been sold to a butcher. Maybe he did restore someone to life. Who knows, and I’m not here today to question. I do think the repetition of the number three is super intriguing, though.

His popularity and public devotion to him grew in the Middle Ages, and it extended across Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and of Greece, of charitable fraternities, of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, pawnbrokers, and of various cities.

Devotion to him in European countries dwindled post-Protestant Reformation, however… except in Holland, where the legend of Sinterklaas persisted. Because of this, the Dutch have actually been specifically credited with transporting Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) to what was then New Amsterdam- but what we now know as New York City. This includes the custom of giving gifts and sweets to children on December 6- his feast day.

In Germany and Switzerland, the legend of Christkind (Christ child) and Kris Kringle would develop; Christkind is an angel-ish figure who often accompanied St. Nicholas on his missions of generosity. Thus, combining once again the legacy of St Nicholas with the Christmas holiday celebration and the traditions of gift giving/encouraging children to behave.

In Scandinavia, a jolly elf named Jultomten delivered gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats; in Scandinavia, elves are a massive part of folklore and tradition that perseveres today, and thus we see the connection that’s eventually made between Santa Claus, St. Nicholas and Elves.

In Italy, a kindly witch named La Befana (which means the hag which is mildly upsetting but also interesting; I’ll explain) rides about on a broomstick and drops down the chimneys of Italian homes to drop toys in the stockings of good little Italian bambinos. Now naming her La Befana, or the Hag, is super interesting to me because of the legend of the three-fold goddess in pagan tradition; the maiden, the mother and the matron (or the hag), representing three aspects of a woman’s life and the roles she would play in society. I think we can definitely take some offense to her being named the hag, but the knowledge of the three-fold goddess and this perhaps being a reference to that at some point is a really interesting part of this for me. ESPECIALLY because Christmas, as we know it, began as a pagan festival and was adopted by the Christian church.

In France, Père Noël fills the shoes of good little French children. Once again, filling shoes. And in England, Father Christmas visits every home on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with treats.

So we see how all of these legends intertwine with one another, and how they all combine to create the idea of Santa Claus that we have today. The legend of the kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales and legends of a magic man who punished the naughty and rewarded the good children; and it makes a lot of sense. The patron saint of children, Nordic magical traditions, encouraging children to be good and scaring them from being bad, a saint who is known for his generosity and thus we connect that to giving gifts- it all makes sense.

The depiction of Santa that we know today is based on drawings by cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, beginning in 1863; these images were heavily influenced by the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or, more popularly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, is also responsible for the popularization of the reindeer pulling the magic sleigh; remember, in Scandinavia he drove a sleigh pulled by goats, and in Italy she flew from house to house. Combine this well- don’t over mix- and what do we get?

Then, in 1931, illustrator Haddon Sundblum further influenced the image we have of Santa Claus today when he illustrated Coca-Cola Santa Claus advertisements in 1931. This Santa was portly, white bearded, in a Coca-Cola red suit.

So here’s the hot tea, now that you have a nice little history of Santa Claus; he clearly isn’t one specific magical being who drops down thousands of chimneys a second. But that doesn’t matter.. Because I believe in him.

Santa Claus doesn’t have to be one specific real life flesh and blood magical immortal being with a litany of elves doing his bidding and reindeer that can fly for him to be real. He’s an idea: and that doesn’t make him any less real than you or I.

Santa, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Pere Noel; these are ideas that have been created and passed down through generations, across cultures and oceans. It’s an unspoken bond amongst people everywhere, a source of Christmas magic and childlike wonder.

The fact that he is an idea is what makes him immortal; he lives on inside of each of us who perpetuate the legend, who celebrate a mysterious but generous man breaking into our homes and delivering wonderful gifts to well behaved children.

So that’s why I believe in Santa Claus- because he is an immortal being, living on inside of us in much the same way that many of us may internalize the spirit of a loved one or ancestor, or conceptualize a religious entity living on inside of us. This is not to call Santa Claus a god, don’t worry- more so to highlight the similarity of that idea of immortality being held in your memory and your spirit. They say you never truly die until your memory is forgotten; so in that sense, St Nicholas’ name and legacy of generosity and caretaking of children being continued today is a beautiful way to live forever.


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