The Real Saint Nick

American cultural icon every December, or beloved Christian pastor in southern Turkey  in the 4th. century?

American cultural icon every December, dangerous pagan tradition, or Christian pastor in southern Turkey in the 4th. century who exemplified a love for the poor by following the way of Jesus?

Growing up as a little kid, my mother left a big chocolate chip cookie out on a plate in front of the living room fireplace one Christmas Eve. When I woke up the next morning, the cookie was half-eaten, with crumbs unmistakably left on the plate.

When I came to having personal faith in Christ in high school, I looked back on the childlike belief in Santa Claus as a type of feel-good fairly tale. Jesus was the “real thing” while this jolly “Saint Nick” figure was simply a product of cultural imagination… merely an urban legend.

It must have been my dad who ate part of that cookie.

In the contemporary era of the so-called “War on Christmas,” Christians have faced the awkward challenge of what to do with “Saint Nick.” Secularists for years had suggested that old “Saint Nick” was simply a pious invention having no relevant historical basis. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, however, have argued that Saint Nicholas was indeed a real historical figure from the 4th century, and so only vaguely related to the “ho-ho-ho” North Pole type glamorized by the old 1931 Coca-Cola ads. Evangelical Protestants, who tend to frown upon the veneration of saints, have sought to distance themselves somehow from Saint Nick in different ways, some even dismissing the history of the original figure as being of pagan origin (just as some secularists still do). Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons why the ancient Saint Nicholas evolved into the jolly guy with an obesity problem driving a bunch reindeer around in a sleigh filled with merchandise from Target and J.C Penny’s is because the majority of American Christians since the 19th century have been reluctant to associate with the practice of venerating dead saints.

Various attempts have been made in recent years to rehabilitate the true history of the original Saint Nicholas and get at what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” Campbell University’s Adam C. English has probably done the most thorough research into Saint Nicholas to give us the detailed scoop. In The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, argues that the evidence shows that actually the original “Saint Nicholas of Myra” did come from 4th. century southern Turkey, serving as a Christian pastor and a popular bishop who advocated for the poor. Beyond that, the exact details get a bit murky.

In Search of the Historical Saint Nicholas

As Adam English writes:

When a tiled mosaic icon of St. Nicholas was dredged up in the early sixteenth century from the Aegean Sea by fishermen near the Greek monastery of Stavronikita located on Mount Athos, metallic-shelled mussels were found clamped to it, covering the saint’s forehead and halo. When the mussels were peeled back, some of the mosaic tiles popped off, and legend has it that the icon bled from the forehead during the procedure. Reconstructing the life of Nicholas is like trying to clean that icon; it involves more than just locating the right historical documents and spiffing them up a bit. The barnacles of legend, myth, and exaggeration that have cemented themselves to the historical facts must be pried away. And yet, it must be kept in mind that the folkloric barnacles cannot be detached without permanently scarring—or even losing—the person. They are too tightly joined.

Nicholas provides for "The Dowry for the Three Virgins" (Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1425, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome)

Nicholas provides for “The Dowry for the Three Virgins” (Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1425, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome)

A number of traditions that later led to Santa Claus probably do have some historical merit, according to English. For example, the most popular ancient story is when Nicholas helped out a man with three daughters who had fallen into poverty. In order to escape destitution, the man had resolved to prostitute the three girls. Nicholas had come to faith in Jesus as a young boy, but his parents had died when he was a teenager, leaving Nicholas with a sizable inheritance. But Nicholas most probably had learned of Jesus’ words that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Upon learning the plight of the desperate father, the story goes that Nicholas secretly threw some bags of gold in through the family’s window at night, thus providing a wedding dowry for each of the three daughters.

Adam English argues that the story is authentic since the church at that time tended to honor celibacy over and against marriage. But by giving away a sizable chunk of his inheritance and providing dowries for the girls, Nicholas was honoring marriage, going against the norm of the period. Eventually, the story was embellished over time, such that by the 12th century, French nuns began leaving candy and gifts to poor children in honor of the memory of the beloved Saint Nicholas. If you fast forward to the 19th century when gift-giving among Americans celebrating Christmas began to really take off, you can see how the connection between Nicholas and gift giving became cemented together (more on how the Saint Nicholas tradition evolved over time at the Gospel Coalition and also the current controversy in the Netherlands over the “Sinterklaas” tradition with charges of racism).

There are other events in the life of Nicholas of Myra that are also probably authentic. For example, during a severe famine he once bartered with a ship owner whose vessel was passing through the area in order to provide grain for those suffering of hunger. In another case, Nicholas traveled hundreds of miles to the capital to plead for lower taxes to ease the economic burden on his people.

However, the stories about Saint Nicholas of Myra do get complicated by the fact that a medieval complier of saint stories, Symeon Metaphrastes (about 912-982?) combined the story of Nicholas of Myra with another Nicholas, Nicholas of Sion, who lived in the late 6th century, a few hundred years after the first Nicholas. As a result, even contemporary popular attempts to recover the “real” Saint Nicholas get muddled, according to Professor English.

Did the original Saint Nicholas really get into a fist fight with the arch-heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea? One version of the story suggests that when a priest, Arius, was trying to argue before the great council of bishops at Nicea that Jesus was not truly divine, a belief shared by today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, that Nicholas was so incensed that he stood up in a rage, wound up and punched Arius right in the face. But did such an event really happen? Perhaps. But perhaps not according to English. We have very little definitive evidence that Nicholas was even there at the Council, and the story describing Nicholas’ slapping of Arius does not show up in the historical record until later in the medieval period. Nevertheless, Nicholas was most likely an ardent supporter of the orthodox cause opposing Arian theology.

Nicholas has been called the patron saint of sailors, children, prisoners, and even pawnbrokers. It may prove impossible to get to the “real” story of Saint Nicholas. But looking back at his story and the traditions that have developed over the years, one can get the sense that this was truly a man who loved Jesus Christ, loved the people he served in his Christian community, and one who set a positive example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus inspiring untold numbers of believers for many generations down through today.

A Chocolate Chip Cookie and the Gift of Giving
Thomas Nash original 1863 print of Santa Claus visiting a Civil War camp for the Union army, on the front of Harper's Weekly.

Thomas Nash’s original 1863 print of Santa Claus visiting a Civil War camp for the Union army, on the front of Harper’s Weekly. Santa is sitting on his sleigh with reindeer, having handed out socks to one soldier, as well as holding in mockery a dancing puppet of Jefferson Davis, the southern Confederacy President. In later prints, Nash would give Santa his now distinctive red coat. (credit: http://www.sonofthesouth.net)

Mmmm… I almost forgot about that chocolate chip cookie left for “ole Saint Nick.” My dad has never admitted eating it.

Your family may or may not celebrate Santa Claus. But when I was growing up, what I do remember for sure and cherish is that my family enjoyed giving gifts to one another.  Furthermore, when believers extend that gift of giving by participating in ways that benefit others in our communities, particular those who are most in need, it recalls the type of gift giving spirit that Nicholas of Myra himself learned as a follower of Jesus. Christians may still be ambivalent about or even directly opposed to the Santa Claus who functions as the patron saint of American commercialism, complete with Rudolph and all of those reindeer, but I would hope that we might find a place to honor the memory of the real Saint Nick who cared for the poor and needy.

You might enjoy the following interview with the author of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, as well as other reviews of the book (Wall Street Journal, and Patheos Book Club), and also the website for the book.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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